The world of Amy Wong

Amy Wong, first to reach Mt Helvellyn
at 3214 ft height, Lake District, 1953
AMY Wong, who turns 80 this year, was 19 when she set sail on the SS Chusan bound for the Malayan Teachers' Training College in Kirkby, United Kingdom, in December 1951. Wong was among 148 Malayans in the pioneer batch of Kirkbyites who had two wonderful years of a well-rounded educational experience at Kirkby College.

In the early 1950s, the then Malayan Government established the teachers' training college in England with a Malayan curriculum was taught by qualified lecturers, mostly graduates of the universities in London, Oxford, Cambridge and Aberdeen. From 1951 until it closed in 1962, groups of 150 Malayans each were sent for training every year. In total, about 1,500 teachers and 405 teacher trainers graduated from the college.

With a wistful smile, Wong recalled the exciting 21-day voyage filled with sightseeing stops at Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Bombay (Mumbai), Alexandria in Egypt, Centa Island in the Mediterranean Sea and sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean.

Amy Wong, second winter in Kirkby, 1953
On New Year's Day, they traveled by train and coach to Kirkby from London's Tilbury Port. Talking about the bitterly cold English winter, Wong remembered how she was comfortable in just a warm overcoat while some of her fellow travellers had to wear five layers of clothing.  After three happy weeks on board, on Jan 2, 1952, Wong and her new friends arrived, weary but excited.

Whipped by chilly winds but made heedless by anticipation, they headed for the campus in a brisk walk only to be disappointed by the sight of a cluster of dark and dismal-looking, single-storey blocks in bare gardens. Everyone was shocked into silence.

They later learnt that the Kirkby Fields Hostel, 10km north-east from Liverpool, was originally built for workers of the Ministry of Supply's Ammunitions Factory.  After dinner that first night, Wong said everyone bounced back in true Malayan spirit, bravely shrugging off the depressing cold, tiredness and pangs of homesickness.

Kirkby College was affectionately known as Kampong Kirkby, a home away from home. Trainees organised social activities and presented stage shows in a Malayan medley of multi-cultural performances with Malay, Chinese, Indian and Portuguese songs and dances.  Their staging of such activities and the organisation of special festive celebrations made a positive impression on the lecturers and people in the neighbourhood.

Amy Wong [Left] flax pulling at Colely Grange, Lincoln
Sometimes, Wong and her friends would take British Council courses during the holidays. A week in August 1953 was most memorable because she went flax pulling in Colely Grange, Lincoln, and was paid 21 shillings or 1 guinea for every acre pulled.  They slept in dorms and were herded to the fields in the back of an open truck early each morning, return with aching arms and hands at day's end.

"Once in a way, I take out my albums and relive memories all over again," said Wong about her volumes of photo albums with individually labeled photos and brief notes.  Looking at a 1953 photo of the Queen's Coronation Ball that she attended at Dorchester Hotel in London, Wong recalled how proud she felt because the Sultan Ibrahim of Johor and his consort were also there.

Amy Wong pony riding at Gap of Dunlow, Killarney 1953
Kampong Kirkby was filled with friendliness, open-minded discussions, high thinking and good manners. Trainees were often invited to English homes for tea or to picnics. As a pioneer Kirkbyite, Wong felt privileged to be among young Malayans learning the importance of cultivating a humanistic and caring society, and of living together in a united, tolerant and close-knit community.

Wong studied in Johor Baru Convent from Standard 1 to Form 5.  Upon graduating from Kirkby in 1953, Wong returned to her old school for what would prove to be a life-long, inspiring career. She taught history in the secondary school for a year before moving to the primary section where she taught other subjects, including geography.  She returned to the secondary school in 1975 and taught there until her retirement in 1984.

Amy Wong [3rd from Left] with Sister Xavier and former
 colleagues at Long-Service Appreciation Awards event
"I'll always love the Convent," Wong declared passionately as she reminisced over a 1985 photo taken with several former colleagues who also received Long-Service Appreciation Awards from the late Sister Xavier. It's no surprise that she holds the proud moniker of the "Pillar of JB Convent."

Distinguished by her slender frame and enviable 22-inch waistline, Wong was, and still is, the epitome of elegance. She is fondly remembered for her colour-coordinated can-can skirts, with matching stiletto shoes, handbag and accessories. 

In the late '50s Wong was a sought-after model for social welfare fashion shows that raised funds for charity.

Since retirement, Wong has traveled extensively to all the continents. She is an active member of the Lions Club of Johor Baru today.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Time, Johor Streets on 22 March 2009

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