food / travel

The Quaintest European Village In The Jungles Of Southeast Asia

The taste of Alsace deep in the Malaysian heartland.

Just like France, only much stickier
Just like France, only much stickier
Kira Hansen

COLMAR TROPICALE - The intensity of the monsoon rain is having a bad effect on the geraniums in the window boxes, making the flowers droop. A shutter slams shut on one of the half-timbered, tile-roofed houses on the cobblestoned street with its two burbling fountains.

In the "boulangerie" (bakery) you can have croissants, pains au chocolat and café au lait. Alsatian "choucroute" (sauerkraut) and "flammekueche" (a type of pizza with cheese, cream and onions) are on the menu at the La Cigogne (stork) restaurant.

Two young Asian women dressed in traditional Alsatian garb giggle as they greet visitors with a “Bienvenue” in French, followed by "Selamat datang" (welcome) the greeting of their native language – Malay.

"Incroyable!" says a French tourist about this cloned Alsatian village in the middle of the Malaysian jungle – in the Berjaya Hills, 50 kilometers from the capital Kuala Lumpur. And it’s by no means a cheap imitation – on the contrary, it’s an exorbitantly expensive copy, its roof tiles and building stones all imported from France.

During the monsoon season, there are short but heavy daily downpours and the Europeans are sweating from the 27°C temperature and 80% humidity. Malaysians on the other hand find the 800-meter altitude refreshingly cool compared to the searing heat of the city. Orchids grow like weeds around here, but vineyards like the ones around Colmar in France would never take here.

Just how did this bizarre bit of Euro-fakery come to be, 10,100 kilometers from the original Colmar in Alsace, France? Legend has it that on a trip to Europe, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his wife were so taken by romantic Colmar was that they persuaded a billionaire friend, Vincent Tan, ninth richest man in Malaysia at the time, to build a version of it in Malaysia. Led by French architect Jean Cassou, the result is a theme park with 235 hotel rooms. Every Saturday there is a market with a carousel and Chinese acrobats. Every night they have karaoke. And loudspeakers are constantly droning Asian pop.

Authenticity has its limits in other ways as well – for example, the "Tour de l'Horloge" (clock tower) is based on the one in the little Alsatian town of Riquewihr and so has nothing to do at all with Colmar. And what is that quaint German cuckoo clock doing here? Meanwhile the "charcuterie" that was supposed to sell typical Alsatian pork-based cold cuts was swiftly replaced by "Le Poulet rôti" selling roast chicken that was more in line with what Malaysians – who are Muslim – would go for.

Malaysia’s own medieval castle

Billionaire Tan also built a copy of the "Haut-Koenigsbourg" Alsatian castle on a hill nearby, but then again he can afford to – he is the founder of the Berjaya Corporation Berhad that has the franchise for McDonald's, Starbucks and Hyundai cars dealerships in Malaysia and also owns hotels, an airline, and a TV station.

Colmar Tropicale is a favorite destination for Malaysian families, who love the accommodation in the half-timbered houses – many rooms have four-poster beds with canopies. The still-powerful former Prime Minister likes to come for outings here with his family on weekends, and particularly loves the boulangerie. He told local newspaper The Sun that the Malaysian Colmar “is like a real French village, so to have that experience people in Malaysia don’t need to go to France.”

Meanwhile, the tropical Haut-Koenigsbourg with its towers and battlements last year became "The Chateau," Malaysia’s first “spa and organic wellness resort.” Children are not welcome here. The establishment has a salt-water swimming pool, Islamic prayer rooms, and a 2,000 square meter spa area. The restaurant has a French chef and serves French organic wines but also freshly squeezed fruit juices.

Asians particularly like "Le Chateau" but it’s also a hit with Middle Eastern guests. Jordanian Princess Yasmine was just here for a couple of weeks. The hotel guest-book also shows that a French family vacationed here – perhaps also drawn by the fact that speaking French is taken very seriously by the management.

Teh Ming Wah, the hotel’s CEO, worked for a long time in Europe and she insists that the staff learn at least some French. It’s about providing “European spa quality and Asian friendliness in a French chateau.” So once a week guest relations manager José gathers the staff together to run through some basics, such as bienvenue, bonjour, madame, monsieur, s'il vous plait and merci.

Curiously the products used at the spa don’t come from France. For relaxation, "Voya" algae products from Ireland and German "Sante" and "Logona Naturkosmetik" are used. And no matter how hard the gardeners in the Chateau garden try, the lavender – like those geraniums in the window boxes down in the village – just doesn’t do well in this climate.

Still: the tropical Alsace is so quirky it’s also a great place for Europeans to head for.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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