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The weird story of two Gardenias, and how one of its founders was murdered

Mention the word Gardenia and you’re probably imagining endless shelves of breads and kaya. Or you may be singing to this…

 

Pretty sure you’re singing this in your head. Img from ABS CBN News

And just like how KFC has its own Colonel Sanders, Gardenia has this guy…

Name this guy. Wrong answers only. Img from Rumah IBS

Ok ok. We understand that not all Malaysians are fans of Gardenia tho it miraculously ran outta stock during the MCO. So, meet Uncle Slocumm. He appears on pretty much all packs of Gardenia bread loaves.

But have you ever wondered if Uncle Slocumm really existed or was just another fictional character? Well…

 

Surprise, gais! Uncle Slocumm was a REAL. LIVE. MAN.

Ok, before some of you come at us with the ‘OMG CILISOS, we all know this a long time ago dy’, allow us to tell you that we’ve also known this for quite some time. In fact, we’ve covered this awhile ago along with other brands that are local.

Totally #buatanmalaysia Img from Berita Harian

But just let us rerun this once again. Horatio Sye Slocumm, who is better known as Uncle Slocumm, was a North American baker. He had 35 years of making bread with one of America’s leading chain of bakeries and was sent to Sabah in 1969 by the International Executive Service Corps, a non-profit volunteer service whose purpose is to assist the economies of Third World Countries.

There he taught local entrepreneurs to make bread and the Gardenia brand began in the same year. In honour of his contribution to the locals, the tagline ‘Uncle Slocumm’s original recipe’ is still being carried by the brand up til today.

The en But wait. That’s only just one slice of the story outta a whole loaf of it. 

As it turns out, Uncle Slocumm wasn’t the only guy who founded Gardenia. There was another guy from Sabah, who was super desperate for help when he first met Uncle Slocumm. 

His name was Wong Tze Fatt.

The late Wong Tze Fatt. Img from The Star

And thanks to him…

 

Gardenia has two companies in Malaysia that sell… DIFFERENT products?!

Have you ever wondered why your Sabahan and Sarawakian friends always had to stock up on their Gardenia breads whenever they wanna head back to their hometowns?

Gotta tapao em all. Img from Xtra

And, no, we’re not kidding about this cos, as it turns out, Gardenia breads cost quite a fortune in East Malaysia as compared to West Malaysia. Uih? How did this happen?

Well, all this started with Wong, who was an entrepreneur. In his teen years, he became the breadwinner of the family and had taken up his father’s coffee shop business. He then turned it into one of Sabah’s well-known supermarkets in town called the Tong Hing Supermarket.

As he was expanding his business in the 60s, he apparently started venturing into baking. He made US styled sliced sandwiches and started selling them in his supermarket. And as if that wasn’t enough, he had even proceeded to sell them in FLIGHTS.

Jkjk. There were also other food served besides sandwich la ok. Unedited images from The Guardian, Cosmopolitan and Tori Avey

However, as the business grew, his lil bakery in the supermarket wasn’t able to cope with the rising kneads needs. So, he had sought help from the US embassy, where he met Uncle Slocumm.

There he learnt the art of baking and eventually started up Gardenia along with another creamery expert, Jim Humphries. Initially, Gardenia had only sold bread but as the business expanded, Wong tried out something new – soft drinks.

In 1981, Wong had collaborated with Pepsi International Company, which was famous for its Pepsi Cola and Mirinda soft drinks. This was how Gardenia Beverages started and the reason why you can find canned soft drinks with Gardenia labels in East Malaysia. 

Besides Gardenia Beverages, there are also other Gardenia products that were produced such as ice creams and cakes. Heck, Gardenia even provides in-flight catering (yea, similar to the one mentioned earlier) at Kota Kinabalu International Airport and several flights such as the Royal Brunei Airline and Korean Air.

Ice cream, canned soft drinks and even… vending machines?! Images from JWPK Holdings and Sixth Seal

And Wong’s Gardenia business empire pretty much expanded to Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and other Southeast Asia countries

However, in 1984, Wong decided to let go of several Gardenia companies, including the one in Peninsular Malaysia, to a multinational company with the history of being the largest food importer in Singapore and Malaysia called QAF Limited (QAF). Since then, the Gardenia company in Peninsular Malaysia is known as Gardenia Bakeries (KL) Sdn Bhd and its operations are different from the ones in Sabah.

Gardenia Bakeries (KL) Sdn Bhd [GBKL] operates only in Peninsular Malaysia and supplies to this market only. Gardenia Sabah covers that market specifically. The two companies have totally different management, different policies and different operational systems.” – Gardenia Bakeries (KL), as quoted in a statement.

Gardenia Sabah, on the other hand, was still owned by Wong at that time. However, things took a tragic turn in 2004 when…

 

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Wong was murdered in an attempted robbery

See, as we were reasearching for this story, we weren’t able to find what happened to Uncle Slocumm after Gardenia was established in Malaysia. The only thing we learnt was how he apparently died on 30th September 1982 in Alabama, US.

Uncle Slocumm’s grave. Img from Find a Grave

But his Malaysian partner wasn’t very lucky.

On the 9th December 2004, an illegal immigrant known as Den, entered Wong’s house with the intention to rob the house. However, Den realised that the house wasn’t empty. He stumbled upon Wong, who was about to leave the house.

This was why he had hit Wong in the head before strangling Wong’s wife, Lee. Den then decided to set fire to Lee’s room to remove all evidence of the break in but it didn’t turn out well.

While he was doing that, Wong’s brother, Tze Kong and Wong’s son, John came to the house to check on the couple after receiving a call from the Jesselton Hotel, which was owned by Wong. The hotel employees claimed that the couple missed their daily breakfast that morning.

Wong’s brother (middle) cried at Wong’s house. Img from The Star

When Tze Kong and John arrived at the house, they saw Den, who had instructed the two of them to leave before setting fire to Lee’s room. According to Sabah police criminal investigation officer Senior Asst Comm II Bakri Zinin, the case is now closed and that burglar may not have broken into the house with the intention to murder the couple.

“We’re more certain now that this incident began as a burglary but resulted in murder.” – Bakri to The Star.

After his passing, Wong’s companies were acquired by JWPK Holdings. In 2020, a company that offers various products from food and beverages to personal care, among others, called Kim Teck Cheong bought over the licenses to trade Gardenia in Sabah, Sarawak and Indonesia.

Despite that, Wong’s family continued his business legacy like his granddaughter, Sarah, who is now the Director of Tong Hing Supermarket.

Although both Uncle Slocumm and Wong have passed on, their legacies didn’t quite end here. It pretty much lives on with Malaysians through their products – be it roti Gardenia, soft drinks, in-flight food or even ice creams.

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