CHINATOWN in Washington is an old woman shuffling home with a cardboard of pastries under her arm. The box is tied with the thinnest filament of pink string. As she goes, the old woman emits a high, strange "Eeeeee." Alternately, her teeth click like knitting needles.

Chinatown in Washington is Wang's Oriental Food and Gifts, at 7th and H NW, with its hard fluorescent glare and pressed-tin ceiling and fine old wooden shelves fragrant with:

garlic, ginger, fried fish paste, pork tongue, sea snails, lotus root, kumquat, green mango, double-yolk duck eggs, snake soup, Fat Boy Instant Noodles.

It is a microscopic Chinatown compared to San Francisco's or New York's or the one in Los Angeles. On the wrong day and perhaps in the wrong mood, it might not look like an ethnic enclave at all, just another urban blight better off given up to the wrecking ball.

But on another day, and in the right gleams of shadowed city light, there will suddenly seem enough culture here, in this tiny Asian corridor, to call it an indigenous place, a saving grace.

But Washington may not have its Chinatown forever, or even long. For up the street looms a vast, low, Orwellian vision of concrete called the Washington Convention Center. What will the new convention center, along with other development -- the talked-about hotels and restaurants -- bring to Chinatown: prosperity or extinction? It is a question no one has an exact answer to yet. Chinatown, some say, sits smack in the glide path of developers' dreams.

* Chinatown in Washington is the Hong Kong Co., 620 H St. NW, where you browse amid plaster stallions with snorting nostrils; canes with swords hidden in them; Bruce Lee paraphernalia; collapsible fans of painted silk paper; and, best of all, a potion called Zhitong Gao from Shanghai. According to the label, Zhitong Gao ($1.20) is good for rheumatism, lumbago, spasms and contusions. "Apply the plaster to the affected part after cleaning and wiping the skin dry, or even better, after bath," explain the directions. The man who runs the Hong Kong Co. is Dean Chin, though someone named Jimmy is minding the store today. Jimmy is on the phone trying to get his air conditioner fixed. Very American.

* Chinatown in Washington is Mee Wah Lung imports, where plump roast ducks hang from their legs behind queasy glass. The ducks cost $13 apiece and smell wondrous. "We make everyday fresh," says the proprietress, stabbing one. Today she has cooked eight. In the rear of the store is an old woman at a card table. She waves and grins crazily.

* Chinatown in Washington is an airless arcade, several steps down from the pavement at 6th and H NW, where Americanized Oriental kids grip the iridescent-blue Fire Sticks of Tron, awaiting the command, "DESTROY ALL ENEMY SHIPS." Their school jackets and Jannsport backpacks are hugged between their knees: microticks of concentration. The person making change in this den is a black man. Above the furious yeep and mindless ping, the ceaseless ricochet, he says, "Used to be a grocery. Raking it in now."

* Chinatown in Washington is an iron-railed walkup off a littered alley where the elderly poor rent shabby rooms for $60 a month. On stifling summer evenings you see them sitting outside on the sidewalk or in the alleyways, perched like withered birds in their green, creaky, metal lawn chairs. There are easily more desperate warrens in Washington, but these places are grim enough.

* Chinatown in Washington is nearly a dozen good restaurants: the Golden Palace and the Tai-Tung and Ruby's and the China Doll and the Hunan Gourmet and the Szechuan and the new Kowloon and some others, too. Why do Chinese restaurants have the best food and all the sadness the world has ever known? They have made an art of the pink Naugahyde booth and the surly waiter in the limp red jacket. To be the real kitch-aromatic thing, there must be strings of red hanging from the ceiling, 40-watt bulbs, indoor-outdoor carpeting and alleged waiters who point to the No. 1 combination when you ask for help. Also, it doesn't hurt if the soy sauce comes in those delicious, salty little vials from Walworth, Wis., known as "Kikkoman No. 7."

* Chinatown in Washington is a lone bush sprouting on an abandoned corner of H Street, like a tree miraculously growing in Brooklyn. It may be the only flora on the block. A woman is picking berries off the bush. She sees a stranger going by and waves him over. She opens her palm. There are two small red berries in it. "We will each have one," she says with a tiny bow. She says nothing else, nor seems to have any need to.

A block away, in a scruffy wedge of park, a dozen kids play touch football, sort of. "Hike!" one of them says in English. The rest is in Chinese. It isn't really a park these kids are playing in, just one of those little happenstance spaces created by a cross-cutting avenue, in this case Massachusetts Avenue. But dreamers have their dreams, and one day this slice of unintentional city green may have a real Chinese name: Sun Yat-sen Park, complete with a Chinese pavilion. And down on 7th Street will be an Oriental pylon that visitors will pass under on their way into Chinatown, just like Grant Avenue in San Francisco. That is what some city planners dream of. These days there is something on the books called the Chinatown Program.

* Chinatown in the Washington of 1982 is two signs, three blocks apart, one crudely lettered, the other neatly painted. The first sign says: "GOD IS GREATEST, NOT THE FBI." The other is outside the Washington Convention Center, set to open its doors next year. It says: "5,000 New Jobs, $66,000,000 new revenue, 300,000 new visitors. D.C. on the Grow."

This is an old Washington joke: "Sure, I'd love to go to Chinatown for dinner. But I've never been able to find it."

In San Francisco, Chinatown will find you, on Grant Avenue and a lot of other places, too. You walk out of a hotel on Washington Square in North Beach at 8 o'clock in the morning and suddenly there are rows of elderly Chinese matrons in pajama-like garb doing calisthenics in the park. On the benches sit their husbands, discarded Don Juans, wheezing and talking politics.

Supposedly, there are people in Chinatown, San Francisco, who have never been outside the core.

Here is a Washington Chinatown map, of sorts: It runs roughly from 9th Street NW over to 5th, and from G up to I. (If you're taking the subway, get off at Gallery Place.) There are said to be about 30,000 Asians living in the entire Washington area. No one knows for sure how many Chinese actually live in Chinatown, though a best guess is somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500.

In the middle of the enclave you will see two ugly, glass-box city buildings that have nothing to do with Chinatown and might work nicely as state office buildings in Romania. Here, also, is the main plant of Bergmann's rug cleaning. Here, also, is the small white hut known to preservationists as the Mary Surratt House, where John Wilkes Booth and fellow conspirators are said to have plotted the abduction of Abraham Lincoln. (In fact, many of Chinatown's principal buildings, commercial and residential, are 19th-century rowhouses that preservationists are fighting to save.) Chinatown just grew up around Mary Surratt's boarding house, which these days has a plaque on its front, courtesy of the Chi-Am Lions Club.

Also here, behind painted-over doors and windows, usually on second floors, are the mysterious Chinese associations--the "tongs" that a Westerner seldom or never gets invited into. Nearly three dozen tongs are said to exist in Chinatown; they have names like the Wah Shing Social Club, the Eng Family Benevolent Association, the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association.

The heart of Chinatown, at least its commercial heart, is a single gaudy strip of H between 6th and 7th streets. Sixty-five percent of the ownership here is said to be Chinese. Here Chinatown looks like a Chinatown is supposed to look--or maybe like Westerners think one should look: the flowing tubes of neon on the China Doll restaurant, the Chinese-language street signs above the English letters, the little red pagoda boxes over curbside telephone stands. Sure, enough of it is ersatz, layered on for the tourists, but so is enough of Georgetown.

Chinatown wasn't always in this decayed grid of Northwest streets, which some regard as the last downtown frontier. Once, it was over by the Capitol, on Pennsylvania Avenue, between 3rd and 4 1/2 streets (now John Marshall Place). That Chinatown had six groceries, at least one good restaurant and people crammed everywhere they could find a space. Then the urban planners and beautifiers of the Capitol came along, and Chinatown got the shove. That was in the early '30s, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. As then, so now.

A Chinatown life.

His name is Leo S. Lee and his green nylon socks are rolled on his hairless caramel ankles. He is holding his cigar with its tip up, like George Burns, so as to contain the ash. On the inside of his arm is a faded tattoo of a dancing girl, picked up years ago on the way to Hawaii when he worked on the Matson Steamship lines. He is a small, jaunty man in an outrageous yellow shirt.

He is talking to Lula Der, assistant resident manager of the Wah Luck House, which is a 10-story, 153-unit, low-income apartment building opened a few months ago under a federal Section 8 program. Wah Luck ("House of Happiness") has given a home to blacks and whites and Chinese, including some of those who were displaced by the new convention center. In all, 44 families and 148 people are said to have been displaced.

"You don't know anything about it," Leo S. Lee says to Lula Der. They aren't talking of Wah Luck, but of the Great Depression.

"I know about it. We had to put cardboard in our shoes," Lula says.

You sit listening to the story of Leo S. Lee's life and you picture those storied, but somehow unknown, 19th-century Americans who went Westerning a century ago.

"When I first come over, my father, he has a laundry in 13th Street. This is 1924. You have to sleep in the laundry on all those wet clothes. Damp. My father and I don't agree.

"So I go to New York. I work in a laundry there, too, but they have different rooms for sleeping. I stay until 1930. It is 5 cents a shirt, 1 1/2 cents for a pound of wet wash.

"Pretty soon Mr. Roosevelt gets elected. At this time, everything very hard. So I go to California and get on a fishing boat and go to Alaska. But first I work in a grand hotel in San Francisco for $2 a week, plus room and one meal. Then I go on my fishing trip to Alaska. I get very rich: $70 a month. Ha. Ha.

"Afterward I go to China and join Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's aviators, only to be told I am colorblind. Ha Ha." (It is a great joke and the joke is going over best with Leo S. Lee himself. He slaps your knee.) "I stay for ll months. Then I come back to America and buy a laundry at 9th and Q. I am right at 603 H when I get drafted. I go to war with the 29th Division, l75th Infantry. I was in Normandy."

Leo S. Lee, naturalized American, is 72 years old, with ll grandchildren. He takes a satisfied pull on his cigar.

"My wife, my children, my grandchildren, all American citizens. I am very proud, you see."

Sort of an American dream?

"Sort of."

In the middle of this Orient of fuming Metro buses and polyglot Asian language stands Bill Yee's China Inn. And in the middle of the China Inn stands Bill Yee himself. It is 2:30 in the afternoon and the lunch crowd has gone away. Bill Yee is pointing out the window. "There used to be little specialty and souvenir shops over there below that mural," he says. "Metro took over that space." Bill Yee and his family have run the China Inn for years. Except most of the family is gone now and sometimes Bill Yee wonders if he can carry on alone.

Above his head are pictures, bordered by Chinese lettering, of his father-in-law (R.I.P. '44), his mother-in-law (R.I.P. '45), his wife (R.I.P. '78). His mother-in-law never learned English. She spent a lifetime running a restaurant and got by as she could. She communicated by drawing pictures on little scraps of paper for the suppliers. When she wanted chickens, she drew chickens. When she wanted ducks, she drew ducks.

"It exists now, this convention center," Bill Yee says when you bring it up. "It's reality. Therefore, you have to think positive. I didn't want it. I worried about it. But what can you do? I read in the paper they already have over 50 conventions booked. I don't know, maybe the conventioneers will come. If they go right back to their hotels, eat there, have a package deal, then Chinatown will lose. Chinatown may not make it. Safety is the key, of course. People have to believe it is safe to come here."

Bill Yee doesn't live in Chinatown anymore. Like many others, he moved out when he could afford to. He has one home in the District, another in Maryland. He employs 15 people.

Two churches minister to the people of Chinatown. The Chinese Community Church is at l0ll L NW (on the upper edge of the corridor), and Calvary Baptist stretches along 8th and H. Both offer outreach programs in language and nutrition for immigrants, some of whom have arrived in Washington with no money and no family and no words strangers can understand.

At Calvary Baptist, old Chinese come every midday to eat free meals provided by the Urban League and to see free movies, while across the hall a dozen Oriental babes curl placidly on the floor in blankets. This is the nursery, and it makes the loveliest sight. It isn't always this pacific in here, one would wager.

Four days a week the menu at Calvary Baptist features American food; one day a week a Chinese meal. Today it is ham. "We're trying to expose them," says Lisa Uy, a teacher from the University of the District of Columbia extension.

The movies are usually Mandarin or Cantonese. Sometimes they are old movies; sometimes they are new. Today the film seems a sort of Asian "Dallas." Alas, it isn't on two minutes when the movie machine goes on the fritz. The audience takes it stoically. An old woman gets up, pours ginseng tea into a styrofoam cup, brings it over to a visitor. She makes a great effort of trying to place it, with her fine old wrinkled hands, in the precise middle of some invisible axis. She smiles, and the crow's feet in the corners of her eyes seem to smile, too. Her name is Wong Lan Mee. "Thank you," the visitor says. "Hsesh hsesh," she says, or something that sounds like that. It is a "thank you" back. Someone else says something that sounds like "Oh Dear." That is "thank you" in another dialect.

Dr. Chin-Lee has been practicing medicine in Chinatown a quarter of a century. He has been in the same location for 23 years. On the second floor of Dr. Chin-Lee's building is a Kung Fu studio. On the third is a black dentist. There is shatterproof glass on the door to Chin-Lee's office; also a huge bolt. At 4 o'clock in the afternoonthe receptionist has to buzz you in electronically.

"I am here to stay," he says. "If the riots did not make me move, I suppose nothing will. Lots of people try to get me to go. I'm 59. Say, my lifespan is to 69. Well, I'm staying here. I don't know how long I'll live, of course."

One-third of Dr. Chin-Lee's patients are Chinese; one-third are black; one-third are white. "Many of my Chinese patients can't pay. It's okay. I'll tell you something else: Many many Chinese distrust going to a Chinese doctor. I don't know why."

On the doctor's wall is some Chinese writing. It says: "Cure the People, and you cure the Country."

Detroit has a Greek Town. St. Louis is proud of Dago Hill. What Washington has, for now, is a small, vital Asian neighborhood. You could stretch a point and say this tiny community is all Washington has to remind it of what a real place of real people is like.

The pastor of the Chinese Community Church, for one, is a pragmatist. The Rev. Man-King Tso, a Methodist minister affiliated with the Baltimore United Methodist Conference, is vice chairman of the Washington Chinatown Development Co. He was one of the first leaders in the Chinatown community to swing opinion toward, not away from, the new convention center. He shifted and weighed and took the pragmatist's course, seeing in the convention center--and subsequent development--an opportunity for city government financial help: You scratch our back, we'll scratch yours.

"When I was young we studied Confucianism as a philosophy and a literature and a religion," he says. "A cornerstone of Confucianism is peace. That is what we hope for here. Peaceful coexistence."