The Teeth are Back at Singapore's Dragon Teeth Gate

The Teeth are Back at Singapore's Dragon Teeth Gate

Prepared by Harold Stephens
Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International

Looking for something interesting to see the next time you are in Singapore? May I suggest a look at Dragon Teeth Gate? But first, let me tell you something about the gate.

The Chinese gave it the name—Dragon Teeth Gate. Chinese chronicles, dating back to the 12th century, describe the passage around the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula where the “rocks are as sharp as dragon’s teeth.”

It was a dreaded passage, feared down through the ages by every seaman and every ship’s captain who sailed the eastern seas, but it was a passage that was unavoidable for there was no other route for trade and travel between East and West. Dragon Teeth Gate was the only channel between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. It was here in these waters that the monsoon winds meet, the Northeast monsoon that blows six months of the year in one direction and the Southwest monsoon blows in the other direction the rest of the year. Sailing ships of past depended upon these monsoon winds to propel their ships.

The monsoons were seasonal and predictable, but not the sudden squalls and shifting currents that could, without notice, send ships upon the rocks that were a constant menace to Dragon Teeth Gate. The early chronicles spoke of the western entrance to the pass being so narrow sailors were able to reach out and touch the heavy foliage. A ship that veered off course a mere dozen meters could tear out its bottom on the half submerged rocks.

But hidden rocks, sudden squalls and changing currents were but a minor threat to passing ships. Far more formidable was the threat of pirates.

When Stamford Raffles and his party arrived off Singapore on 28 January 1819 with the intention of establishing a trading station for the East India Company, he estimated the number of pirates to be more than 10,000. They had settlements as far as the Malacca Straits. Their boats were long and narrow, propelled by oars and sails, and very swift. Their largest galleys were often 100 feet long, and carried 150 men. For their crew, the pirate leaders recruited the Dyaks of Borneo who were fierce and merciless headhunters. In their ships they attacked Chinese junks and later European vessels which were becalmed or which they could surprise in harbours. The pirates went after the booty. The Dyacks went after the heads. It was a very compatible arrangement.

Nevertheless, Dragon Teeth Gate continued to serve as navigational aids to mariners sailing through the swift waters of the narrow channel between them. Aside from early chronicles, they were mentioned in the 1400s by Ming dynasty's Admiral Zheng He.  Remember him? His seven maritime voyages to South East Asia, between 1405 and 1433 AD, resurfaced a few years ago when author Gavin Menzies wrote a book titled 1421 and soon Dr. Dragon Teeth Gate made news again. But there was one problem. The gate as described in the old Chinese chronicles and by Admiral Zhen He no longer existed.

The rocky outcrops that marked the gate were destroyed by the British in 1848 to widen the channel for larger vessels to sail through. I remembered when I came to Singapore in 1960 seeing a painting in the National Art Museum that showed huge rocks at the side of the western entrance. And here is the irony. Would you believe, the rock is back there again today.

In 2005, a symbolic replica was erected by the Singapore government near its original site to mark the role it played in Singapore's maritime history, and to mark the seven voyages of Admiral Zheng He.

And it is there for all to see. But at the same time, don’t pass up the Singapore River in your tour of the city.

The modern port of Singapore traces its origins to the mouth of the Singapore River and it is here that the port developed and flourished for its first 40 years. The River developed as the main commercial centre with a supplementary trading area for small craft at the estuary of the Rochore and Kallang Rivers.

The harbour, of course, is not the same as when Stamford Raffles first saw it, but some aspects of it remain unchanged. Stand at the base of the Lion statue at the entrance of the Singapore River and look out at the harbor, and let your imagination run. What an assortment of vessels that once dropped anchor here: East Indiamen and Opium Clippers from India; Chinese Junks from Fukien, Hainan and Kiangsu; the Wangkang and Tope from Thailand; the Palari, Golekkan from Indo-China; the Lambo and Leteh-ieteh from the Indonesian Archipelago; and the Tongkang and Pinas from the Malay Peninsula—they all came to their respective anchorages off the Singapore River. The cargoes were then transported by bumboats to Boat Quay where the greater part of the business was conducted. Boatyards developed along the Telok Ayer Street waterfront. Commercial Square, now known as Raffles Place, developed as an adjunct to Boat Quay and, until the reclamation of Collyer Quay in the eighteen-sixties, the buildings and premises reached the waterfront and had their own jetties for passengers and cargoes.

The Singapore River today is closed down to bumboats, and where godowns once lined the quay there are now shops and boutiques and restaurants and a few bars. When Raffles came upriver, there were a few Chinese and Malay fishermen with sheds on the riverbank and nothing more.

The best way to get a feel for the harbour is to take a harbour cruise. Tourist boats leave Clifford Pier and cruise through Kepple Harbour, past a cluster of tropical islands that include Sentosa, Sister's Island, St. John's, and Lazarus Island, where legend and folklore abound, and reach Kusu Island (Tortoise Island) where supposedly a giant tortoise transformed itself into an island, providing sanctuary to two shipwrecked fishermen. You can enjoy the Singapore skyline from out at sea, and on a clear day, you can see the Indonesian Island of Batam and Riau.

The cruise through the harbour is exciting. Ships flying the flags of nearly every nation in the world drop anchor here. Some 250 vessels come and go every day: freighters and tankers, luxury liners and cruise ships, Indonesian scows and Thai fishing boats and many private yachts and sailboats.

Few sea lanes of the world have seen more traffic than Dragon Teeth Gate. It was through Dragon Teeth that early Arab traders had to make their way 2,000 years ago. In the early 1400s Chinese Admiral Zheng managed to evade destruction when he sailed his fleet of 62 ships with a force of 37,000 men around the point and through Dragon Teeth Gate. Zheng He's navigational map contains references to Temasek, as well as Dragon's Teeth Gate which he called Long Ya Men. Later came the early Portuguese and Spanish followed by the Dutch and the English. The number of ships that split open their sides and spilled their guts on the ocean floor around Horsburgh is anyone's guess. The total amount of ships lost may never be known but records do show between 1824 and 1851 there were at least 16 large vessels wrecked at Horsburgh.

Kusu Island, where the cruise junks make a stop, was once a pirate hangout. Piracy at the times was a very noble calling and the profession not merely of outlaws but of merchants and nobleman and even sultans as well. There is evidence that before the arrival of the Portuguese, the first Europeans, it was a recognised thing for sultans and rajas to replenish their treasury by piratical raids.

Being a race of skilled seamen, the Malays could take cover with their shallow draft boats by crossing reefs and escaping into mangrove swamps where larger warships dared not venture. Many upriver ports and fishing villages became their strongholds. Kusu Island was another.

The British realised if they were to induce free shipping and trade to their colonies at Singapore, piracy would have to be checked. One of the major pirate strongholds at that time was Pangkor Island on the West coast of Malaya. In 1828 the Sultan of Perak ceded Pangkor Island to Britain along with a narrow coastal strip to the north and south called the Dindings. With control of the island and with no place for the pirates to flee along the coast, Britain was finally able to keep the pirate problem in check in the Straits.

The rapid growth of Singapore Harbour was phenomenal. Although Singapore possessed virtually no natural resources and produced no manufactured goods, the exports of Singapore mounted to over $6 million within 5 years after the port was established. Singapore became a mart for the exchange of the produce from Indo-China, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago for the merchandise of India, China and Europe. Trade was open to ships and vessels of every nation “free of duty equally and alike to all,” a preamble that still applies.

The greatest impetus to the increase in shipping was due to the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, following which steamships were no longer required to follow the long and risky route around the Cape of Good Hope. These were the years that a Polish seaman by the name of Teodor Korzeniowski arrived in Singapore. He loved the sea, and would have continued his life as a sailor forever had he not become crippled with arthritis. He went to England and so impressed was he with his eastern travels that he took up a pen and began to write, in a language that wasn’t his own. He also changed his name to Joseph Conrad. His writings, of course, have become classics of English literature, and much of old Singapore that we know today comes from these writings.

The past and the present are all there, and all it takes is a harbour cruise to help understand and appreciate it.



Q. Dear Mr. Stephens, I enjoyed your stories on China. I wrote to you once before asking if you were glossing over the facts about travel in China. There are so many conflicting stories about China that I don’t know what to believe any more. —Hazel Copenfield, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

A. Dear Ms. Copenfield, if you are looking at a political analysis of China, I don’t want to disappoint you. I will leave that up to the political pundits, politicians and economists. I write stories about travel to bring the world closer together. I like to write about the romance of travel. I want to point out to readers that we live in a very beautiful world and let’s take advantage of the world that we live in, and enjoy it. I found when I travelled though China, if I smiled, people would smile in return.  —HS

Harold Stephens
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.

A sketch of Singapore’s Dragon Teeth Gate in 1854

The gate today with a replica of the old rocks

A map of the harbour by Admiral Zheng He 14l5

Modern junk not unlike days of old

The lion on the water front that is the symbol of Singapore

Girls pose for a photo on the bridge at the mouth of the river

Get a ticket to explore the harbour

Statue overlooking the river of Raffles, founder of Singapore

For more of Singapore read the author's book