Recent years have seen factories in Hong Kong – such as Tsuen Wan’s disused cotton mills – being revitalised as design hubs. Such repurposing was introduced after most local factories relocated to the mainland and Southeast Asia in the 1980s and 90s as Hong Kong’s manufacturing industry went into a decline following several decades of boom.

Preview of the Hong Kong factories turned design hub The Mills as complex nears completion

In the 18th century, Canton was built on factories of a different kind. Located outside the city walls, the Thirteen Factories area was the sole site where foreign trade was legally permitted in China from 1757 to 1842. “Factories”, in this context, did not refer to workshops and manufacturing centres – from the post-classical Latin factorium (“place for making oil”), influenced by association with the classical Latin facere (“to make”) – but instead to the offices, warehouses, trading posts and entrepôts of foreign traders.

Such a factory system harks back to medieval Europe, where organisations of European merchants in foreign centres maintained a body of privileges, special jurisdictions and diplomatic and trade relations. Later, between the 16th and 18th centuries, European traders founded such factories in numerous coastal cities in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America.

The first such network in Asia was developed by the Portuguese in the Age of Discovery: in every major market, they established a feitoria (“trading post”) – from the Latin factoria, which comes from the Latin factor (“doer, maker”) – which was managed by a feitor (“factor, purchasing agent”). European powers who arrived in the East Indies there­after, establishing their own factories, found that Portuguese was already well established – and necessary – as the lingua franca of commerce from the Red Sea to Canton.

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Unsurprisingly, Portuguese is the source for the English “factory”: its earliest known occurrence is in a 1582 English translation of Portuguese historian Fernão Lopes de Castanheda’s 16th-century account of India.

Trade with the Thirteen Factories was exclusively controlled by Chinese hongs – Cantonese hàang (“[licensed] business”) – and, by extension, its merchants, until the Qing court was defeated in the first opium war. China was compelled, in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, to open five ports to foreign trade, and to cede Hong Kong Island to the British.