HONG KONG - Bank of America has embarked on a major hiring spree across Asia, aiming to expand in the fast growing region and revive the investment banking franchise that Merrill Lynch built before the financial crisis.

The push is a surprise to rivals who thought the bank would focus more on rebuilding its U.S. business and a welcome sign for Merrill veterans in Asia who worried their new owner would fail to spend time or money to revive the Asia Pacific business.

BofA has hired Rajesh Melwani from UBS to be the Asia Pacific head of equity derivatives sales, based in Hong Kong, sources close to the matter said on Thursday.

In another BofA poach, the bank hired a real estate research team from Bell Potter Securities in Australia, led by veteran analyst Simon Garing, a source told Reuters.

The recruitment is roping in not just junior bankers filling seats that emptied after the crisis but, but targeting top level -- and expensive -- veterans of the industry.

We have a long-term commitment to the most interesting growth region in the world: Asia, said Brian Brille, president Asia Pacific at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, without referencing specific hires. The bank would not comment on hires that have not been publicly disclosed.

The company's corporate and investment banking, and sales and trading businesses operate under the Bank of America Merrill Lynch brand. BofA is the largest U.S. bank by assets.

BofA rescued Merrill Lynch during the depths of the financial crisis in late 2008. That integration was slow and difficult, leading to some concerns that Merrill's Asia franchise may never recover from the exodus it suffered early last year.

BofA's Asia presence before the Merrill deal was very limited.

Last month, the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank reported a much wider fourth quarter loss, a sign that the U.S. banking sector's problems are far from over.

The bank did, however, repay the $45 billion of the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) funds that the U.S. government injected into BofA when the crisis worsened.

So quarterly losses aside, the bank is pushing ahead with building up in Asia.

Last month it hired a team of 10 from Royal Bank of Scotland to get Chris Thomas to head up its fixed income, currency and commodities business.

This came just months after BofA appointed ex-Goldman Sachs banker Craig Drummond to head up its Australian operations, hiring about 10 people from UBS' real estate team, including its former head Darren Rehn.

Late last year, BofA hired another veteran Asia banker, Chris Gammons, formerly of Citigroup, to head its financial sponsors group.

Bofa is also said to be hiring heavily for its investment banking business in China, where it lost some top talent last year.

Asia is very much identified for all banks as a growth region, said Andrea Williams, a managing director at Ambition in Hong Kong, a recruitment company.

We've rebounded far quicker than anybody else and there is money being spent here, so every bank wants to make the most out of that opportunity, she said.

(Additional reporting by Doug Young; Editing by Chris Lewis and Lincoln Feast)