In 1300s S’pore, “pirates” robbed passing ships & slaughtered their men in our waters
The water body between Sentosa and Keppel Harbour today is pretty idyllic, save for the occasional passing yacht or cruise ship.
It wasn’t so 700 years ago.
A dangerous strip of water
In the 14th century, a Chinese trader by the name of Wang Dayuan visited Temasek and found a particularly dangerous strait situated between present day Keppel Bay and Sentosa.
He called the strait Dragon’s Teeth Gate because there were hills on either side of it, resembling the teeth of a great creature.
It was a suitably ominous name because Dragon’s Teeth Gate was where many passing ships were attacked and plundered by pirates.
According to Wang, these pirates would wait until ships were on their return journeys from the west (hence carrying stuff worth looting) before ambushing the vessels with a few hundred perahu (small boats).
Armed with blowguns, the pirates looted the ships and slaughtered anyone on board.
Victims who were lucky enough to catch a wind within the waterway could escape. The not-so-lucky ones were slaughtered after they were robbed.
Wang’s travel journals also tell us that the area around the waterway was “barren”. Aside from pirates, its coastal inhabitants consisted of natives and Chinese people.
“The natives and Chinese dwell side by side. Most [of the natives] gather their hair into a chignon, and wear short cotton bajus girded about with black cotton sarongs.”
The items the people of Dragon’s Teeth Gate traded included copper, porcelain and cloth.
This was Wang’s account of the people living in Temasek.
It is highly possible that some of these “pirates” were actually sea nomads or orang laut, the indigenous people who collected sea products, traded with land settlements, and served in the courts of early Malay rulers in Singapore.
Sailors who were travelling into Dragon’s Teeth Gate would be hard-pressed to miss a rocky outcrop resembling a fang at its entrance:
The British named the rock Lot’s Wife — after the biblical character who turned into a pillar of salt. It was also called Batu Berlayer which means “Sail Rock” in Malay.
Here’s a closer look at its supposed location:
By the time the British arrived on Singapore’s shores in the 1800s, the inhabitants of Dragon’s Teeth Gate were long gone — sadly, no one knows what happened to them.
Also by that time, thanks to the port built by the British, an increasing number of steamships, which ran on coal, started calling at the Singapore port to refuel.
Bumboats would ferry coal to the waiting steamships, resulting in even more congestion along the already-crowded Singapore River.
In need of a second water body for port activities — this time a location that was deep enough for large ships — the British flagged Dragon’s Teeth Gate as the sole suitable location.
Said Henry Keppel, an officer with the British Royal Navy who rediscovered the bay in 1848:
“[I] was astonished to find deep water close to the shore, with a safe passage through for ships larger than the Maeander. Now that steam is likely to come into use, this ready-made harbour as a depot for coal would be invaluable.”
During the construction of the New Harbour, the British blew up Batu Berlayer to widen its entrance.
Today, a replica of it sits approximately where the old rock formation once stood at present day Labrador Park, reminding us of a Singapore from a different time.
Theatrical production on Dragon’s Teeth Gate
The above account of Temasek’s history comes largely from a foreigner’s travel journals.
Singapore’s pre-colonial history itself, especially one rooted in myths, has many different perspectives and interpretations. If you’re keen to learn more about it, you can catch an original dance-drama production titled “Whispers from the Dragon’s Teeth Gate”.
This production is commissioned by the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre and presented by Dance Ensemble Singapore Arts Company (DES Arts), in collaboration with Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts.
The production traces Singapore’s transformation from an island of immigrants to a country forged by our multi-ethnic cultures.
It brings together a variety of influences, from Indonesian to Peranakan, and even Chinese in the music and costumes.
For example, Singaporeans will be familiar with the character Sang Nila Utama. However, few know that he was a Palembang prince.
This cultural nugget will be illustrated in a court scene on the Forbidden Hill, which Indonesian choreographer Didik Nini Thowok will create based on an Indonesian court scene.
Aside from Didik, the production brings together the talents of local historian Kua Bak Lim, playwright Han Laoda, and Peranakan costume designer Raymond Wong.
Tickets retail for S$30 or S$40. 15 to 20 per cent discount are available for eligible patrons. You can book your tickets via SISTIC.
Special sharing session with choreographer and scriptwriter
There’ll also be a sharing session on Sunday, 14th April 2019 with the choreographer and scriptwriter/conceptualiser of “Whispers from the Dragon’s Teeth Gate” – Ms Cai Shiji and Mr Edmond Wong respectively.
Happening at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Gallery from 4pm to 5pm, admission is free so make sure to pop by! Enquiries can be made to Dance Ensemble Singapore at 6334 7192.
Whispers from the Dragon’s Teeth Gate
Date: 20 April 2019, Saturday
Time: 3.00pm and 8.00pm
Duration: 90 minutes
Venue: Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Far East Organisation Auditorium, Level 9
- 20% Discount for Senior Citizen (55 years old and above) / Local & Overseas Student / NSF
- 15% Discount for PAssion Card Member
Top photos via NAS. This sponsored article made our writer wish he can travel back in time.