SAN FRANCISCO - In its first significant return to international consumer banking in recent years, BankAmerica Corp. is setting up a special retail division for Asia.

BankAmerica said last week that it plans to split its Hong Kong-based Asia division into separate wholesale and retail divisions, effective Aug. 1.

The core of the retail division will be Bank of America (Asia) Ltd., a 22-branch bank in Hong Kong that BankAmerica inherited from Security Pacific Corp. With $2.3 billion of assets, it is Hong Kong's ninth-largest commercial bank.

Low Bids

BankAmerica, which is based in San Francisco, initially planned to sell the profitable Asian bank, but reversed the decision about six months ago. Bids for the unit were low, and BankAmerica judged it was "worth more than potential buyers were willing to pay," a bank spokesman said.

The Hong Kong bank earned $42 million in 1992, for a return on assets of 2.02%.

The 81-year-old institution, founded as the Bank of Canton, operates mainly as a consumer bank, but also serves middle-market and small-business customers.

BankAmerica, the United State's second-largest bank company, shut or sold most of its overseas consumer banking businesses in the early and mid-1980s when it was going through a financial crisis. The original plan to sell Security Pacific's Hong Kong bank was in keeping with that strategy.

The Asia retail division will be run by James E. Hulihan, 50, who is currently the Hong Kong bank's chief executive.

New Wholesale Chief

The new chief of BankAmerica's wholesale operations in Asia will be Kai S. Nargolwala, 43, who is currently senior credit officer in the Asia division. He will oversee the bank's Asian trading, payments, corporate finance, and commercial banking businesses.

Both divisions will report to David A. Coulter, a BankAmerica vice chairman who is chief of wholesale and international banking operations.

The current Asia division head, group executive vice president John V. Rindlaub, assumes new responsibilities as chairman and chief executive officer of Seattle-First National Bank, BankAmerica's Washington State subsidiary, SeaFirst Bank.

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