Investor demand is strong as the Bank of China launches its initial public offering in Hong Kong.

Thousands of local investors in Hong Kong queued up to apply for shares of the state-controlled Bank of China last Thursday - the first day of the public offering.

The Bank of China hopes to raise at least $9.8 billion in the world's biggest initial public offering in six years. A consortium - that includes the Royal Bank of Scotland, U.S. investment bank Merrill Lynch and Hong Kong-based tycoon Li Ka-Shing - agreed to buy a 10 percent stake in China's second-largest lender.

Qu Hongbin, an economist with Hong Kong-based HSBC bank, says the Bank of China's IPO is one of the important steps China is taking before it opens its financial sector at the end of this year under World Trade organization obligations.

"It represents part of China's overall banking restructuring strategy to encourage big banks to list in the overseas market. So it's quite important from that perspective," said Qu.

Thailand's leading producer of beer and spirits launched a $1 billion initial share sale in Singapore Friday, which could make it Southeast Asia's biggest listed brewer.

Thai Beverage, whose Chang Beer and Mekhong whisky are top sellers in Thailand, turned to Singapore after strong anti-alcohol protests in Thailand - led by Buddhist monks - blocked the company's listing there.

In South Korea, the country's largest lender Kookmin Bank signed a contract to buy a controlling 64 percent stake in Korea Exchange Bank from U.S. investment firm Lone Star. Lone Star is under investigation for alleged tax evasion and illegal lobbying over its acquisition of a controlling stake in Korea Exchange Bank in 2003.

South Korea and the Association of South East Asian Nations signed a free trade agreement in Manila Tuesday to gradually reduce tariffs on merchandise by 2010. Only Thailand - one of the 10 nations in ASEAN - declined to participate in the accord because of an on-going dispute with South Korea over rice. ASEAN is South Korea's fifth-largest export destination.