The Quest

Photo of Yusof Mohamed used in
Malayan Teachers' Training College,
Kirkby UK, yearbook
It all started in 2008 when Zainal Yusof began doing research into his family history.  With a passion for writing and a demanding career in advertising, his work on a project started by his late mother, had its fair share of starts and stops.  His quest for more information to complete this project ultimately brought him in touch with me and back to his roots in Johor Baru.

His father, Yusof Mohamed, was already a senior teacher attached to a school in Batu Pahat when he joined the first batch of teachers to be trained in the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kirkby, UK.  He was then aged 35 and there’s where he met Zohara Ishak, a 25-year old girl from Johor Baru, a fellow trainee in the pioneer batch of teachers in Kirkby – who later became his wife.

On his return from Kirkby, Yusof’s first job posting was to English College [now known as Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar] in Johor Baru before going on to be Vice Principal of the Language Institute at Bukit Senyum.  Although he thought his career would continue and end in Johor, he had no alternative but to move to Kuala Lumpur when the institute was relocated there. 

View of Kirkby College, UK

Yusof and Zohara have five children, three boys and two girls – Zainal is second in the family.  Just four months after Zohara’s demise in 2008, Yusof passed away at age 91.  As the family went through their personal items, they discovered a manuscript of Zohara’s autobiography that she started writing in 2000, filled with interesting anecdotes. 

As they pieced together writings by Yusof [retrieved from his daughter who now lives abroad!] and looked at their parent’s collection of old photos, an exciting story emerged.  This compelled the siblings to reach a decision to complete the project that was started by their mother. 

Class members in the sitting room of Kirkby College, UK

This decision set Zainal off on his quest for relevant information to flesh out the outlines made by his mother, travelling to places and meeting people to confirm comments and verify events that she wrote about.  The internet is a useful research tool and one of the blog sites that Zainal discovered was, My Johor Stories. 

As he read my blog, rediscovering Johor – the place where he was born – Zainal read my Portrait piece on Amy Wong, a retired teacher who was also a member of the pioneer group of trainees at Kirkby College!

Yusof Mohamed [2nd from Right] was the first
Class President of the Kirkbytes

From my description on Amy Wong’s 21-day journey by steamship to the UK, Zainal recalled his father’s recollections of his experiences that closely mirrored Amy’s memories.  While his father was also actively involved with the shipboard and ports-of-call adventures that Amy enjoyed, his mother hardly had any fond memories of the journey.  That was probably because she did not have good “sea legs” and her bed was a welcome respite to ward off sea-sickness!

Thrilled with what he read, Zainal did not hesitate to get in touch with me and his first email on 26 July 2012 read as:

Hello Peggy,

Your old article on The World of Amy Wong interests me, as my late parents were from the same batch of the first Kirkby teachers. I have a group picture of my parents with Ms Wong (I believe is her). I’m curious to know if Amy Wong is still contactable for me to find out some facts.  I am presently finishing off my mother’s biography. My mother’s name was Zohara Ishak, while my father was Yusof Mohamed.


Zainal and Amy Wong looking at old photos
from Yusof Mohamed's photo album
Recently I have been receiving emails from readers with interesting feedback and queries on my blog posts and since I have been connecting people through my blog, I have inadvertently earned the subtle nickname of, “Nokia,” because I’m living out this brand name’s famous tagline – Connecting People!  

Zainal’s query about Amy Wong, added to the excitement because she is certainly contactable and I’m happy to help him complete his mother’s biography!  His message triggered off a series of emails, text messages and telephone calls among Zainal, Amy Wong and myself over the next few weeks.  In response to my prompt reply, Zainal said:

Hi Peggy,

Delighted and extremely excited that you responded swiftly for the opportunity to be able to meet or talk to Amy Wong. I am based in Subang Jaya Selangor, but I am JB born so I frequent come down.  With all the changes, I may only lose my way in the current JB roads!

26 July

Another interesting message from Zainal dated 29 July:

Yes, I’m preparing the mementoes, photos, writings and everything related to preparing my mother’s biography, to bring to meet this very special woman who shared a piece of history with my parents at Kirkby. I believe our meeting will be relevant not only to the autobiography that my mother started writing but to what I believe is history in its most enriching role.

I will get back soonest in the next few days, on a time to be in JB for tea with you and Amy Wong.

And hey Peggy, I am from the advertising industry, and before I had even read Amy Wong's story, I was somewhat impressed and certainly attracted to your whole web page of the nostalgic feel and look of Peggy Loh's “My Johor Stories”.  Really good stuff!

Thanks again and regards.

Amy Wong with Zainal Yusof
Our correspondence culminated with an appointment for tea on 21 August in Johor Baru.  When Zainal and his wife, Norimah, were in JB to visit relatives over the Raya season, it was an excellent opportunity to meet with Amy Wong and me.  An electric thunderstorm and blustery winds did not deter us from keeping the tea appointment and as agreed, Zainal came armed with an album of old photos and the precious manuscript of his mother’s biography. 

We shared a delightful afternoon, poring over old photos and listening to Amy reminisce about her Kirkby College days.  Even at age 83, Amy’s memory remained sharp as she wistfully recalled interesting details of that voyage on board the SS Chusan to the UK in 1951.  Her recollections went a long way to substantiate what Zainal’s parents have recorded in their writings and with Amy’s permission, Zainal will use some of the information I wrote about her, in his mother’s biography.  

When Zainal modestly showed us the dog-eared manuscript that he had developed from his mother’s and father’s writings and the input he and his siblings have garnered over the years, I thought that it is tangible proof of their commitment to bring this special project to completion.  On the front page of the A4 size sheet of paper, a dedication read:

“Dedicated to the memory of Mak and Papa to whom we basked in their love, mended our waywardness, calmed the exuberance of our youth and gifted us the legacy of seeing beyond ourselves.”

Zainal and his wife, Norimah with Peggy

As Zainal discussed the project with passion, it struck a familiar chord with me because I have also been working on a biography for a foreign lady missionary in India.  I can see that he is making good progress but like any writer, he is trying to add more relevant material to improve the manuscript wherever possible.  The end of the project is virtually in sight and I share Zainal’s anticipation to see it finally out in print.

Many members of the pioneer batch of Kirkbytes may no longer be with us but I hope that family members of any fellow classmates from the first batch, who are reading this, can contact Zainal to help him with his book project.  Just follow Zainal’s footsteps by writing to My Johor Stories and I will put you in touch with him. 

P.S.  As I told my mum about the appointment with Zainal, sharing names and interesting snippets of our conversation, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that mum is acquainted with his father’s family!  She said his older uncle Hassan Mohamed, or rather Dr Hassan the dentist and his family, were their neighbour when grandfather or Ah Kong was based in Muar!  Mum also reminded me that the wife (Ramlah, a retired teacher!) of Zainal’s younger uncle, Harris Mohamed, used to serve delicious Laksa Johor from a former café in JARO, many years ago!  Wow! What a small world!


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