On warm nights the pungent smells of ginsen, onion and garlic slice the air. The women, in straw sandals and faded cotton dresses, gossip loudly among themselves on wrought-iron porch stoops while the men sip rice wine and play night-long games of poker and mah-jongg in smoky second-floor parlors.

Eighty-one-year-old Tom Yuen pours a mug of Shanghai rice wine for a visitor in his tiny second-floor apartment at 819 6th St. NW. His room, typical of many in the area, is lit by a bare light-bulb hanging from the ceiling, and is jammed - but neatly so - with dressers, chests, a single bed, and snapshots of generations of relatives.

In faded yellow photographs his ancestors wear brocaded silk suits, while more recent snapshots show his children and grandchildren in jeans or business suits.

"I haven't got too many places to go at my age," he says. "I just walk around Chinatown a tot, visiting people and talking with all the other old folks who live around here. Lots of times we just get together to play mah-jongg and afterwards have parties or supper. It makes the days much shorter ."

Compared to the Chinatowns of San Francisco or New York, Washington's Chinatown - centered on H Street and roughly outlined by I, G, 5th and 9th streets NW - is Lilliputian. Many long-time District of Columbia residents are scarcely aware it exists.

Chinatown's elderly, who comprise the majority of the 1,200 people living there, have long and vibrant memories of their community. They recall the time Chinatown bustled 24 hours a day on Pennsylvania Avenue at the foot of Capitol Hill before it was relocated to its present site in the 1930s, and how ever since - with the growing adaptation of younger Chinese to American lifestyles, the move to the suburbs of thousands more, and the riots in 1968 - Chinatown's business and cultural identity has waned.

Now, with the possibility that convention center will be built on the edge of Chinatown at Mount Vernon Square, merchants and residents alike feel a mixture of hope and anxiety about the fate of their neighborhood.

"It'll be good for business," said Duane Wang, owner of Wang's Grocery and Gift Shop on the corner of 7th and H streets NW, echoing the feelings of some in the community. "It'll bring lots of rich people and tourists to the stores."

Others feel that the potential profits the convention center could stimulate in the area - the classic "trickle-down" model of urban renewal - may never happen.

"A lot of people are simply going to be chased out of their homes by an on-slaught of private development," said Sam Cacus, a Fillipino who is an active member of Eastern Wind, Inc., a community organization of 30 young Asian-Americans in the Washington area.

"I grew up in the suburbs," Cacus said. "Chinatown was the first place in the city where I felt accepted as a person. I learned Chinese from the people there. I cherish the memories I have of the area, and I don't want to see it disappear."

"I immigrated to Canada in 1911," Tom Yuen says, "and owned a grocery in Winnipeg for 40 years. I get a $154 pension from the Canadian government now. I've been here for 17 years because I wanted to be close to my son. He's a mechanic in Silver Spring. Every weekend, either I go visit him and his family, or they come down here.

"Black in 1912 I met Sun Yat-sen in Vancouver," he says, smiling. "That was shortly after the revolution got rid of the warlords for good. He told me to get educated over here, then go back and help my people. Sometimes I wish I had ."

To residents, Chinatown is perhaps more a state of mind than a racially or culturally distinct neighborhood. The area is about 45 percent Chinese, 45 percent black and 10 percent white, and encompasses scattered enclaves of shops, restaurants, traditional family associations and housing.

Some of the narrow brick houses date back to 1860. At 604 H St., for instance, is the rooming house of Mary Surratt, who was hanged along with John Wikes Booth as a coconspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln. Today the thin, white-stone structure houses the Suey Sang Lung Grocery.

Within a block of H Street, Chinatown's main thoroughfare, are several parking lots; three large black churches - formerly synagogues - with congregations totaling nearly 4,000; several D.C. government office buildings, including the cement and green-glass Potomac Building at 614 H St. NW; and Furniture Row, a loose collection of furniture stores and warehouses.

Six years ago fervent protests erupted when the city decided to build what was then being called the Eisenhower Convention Center in the heart of Chinatown, on H Street between 6th and 10th streets. A coalition of Chinatown's Chinese residents, white entrepreneurs and black churchgoers forced the city to shift sites.

Beyond that, the protest helped forge a new awareness of Chinatown's importance among Chinese and non-Chinese alike.

Most of the metropolitan area's 15,000 Chinese residents live in the Maryland suburbs, according to D.C. government figures. Many of them are professionals or government workers, although their parents or grandparents, typically were merchants.

Some of these second-and-third generation Chinese-Americans still have older relatives living in Chinatown, and others visit the neighborhood often, if just to shop.

Chinatown also continues to serve as a way-station for some of the 150 to 200 Chinese immigrants who come to Washington every year. Many find jobs at Chinese restaurants and groceries or, occasionally, open their own Chinatown businesses.

Huang Ka, for instance, who immigrated from Hong Kong several years ago, opened the Kowloon Restaurant at 1105 H St. NW, and his 21-year-old daughter, Hang Lin-Ka, started the Hong Kong Kung Fu Equipment Center at 7th and H streets NW.

Chinatown's importance is "a matter of identity and pride," according to Edward Chin Park, a Baltimore architect. Park was hired by the city in the wake of the Chinatown protest six years ago to prepare a plan for the area, pegging it to the Municipal Planning Office's overall Downtown Plan.

So far Park and the planning office have installed bilingual street signs and pagodeshaped telephone booths in the area, and put a vivid mural portraying the history of Chinese in America on the history of Chinese in America on the west facade of the Jade Palace Restaurant near 7th and H NW. Plans include the hanging of Chinese graphics at an exist of the Gallery Place Metro station, and the installation of street lamps with Asian motifs.

"My dream for Chinatown would mean sprucing up the area to such an extent that more Chinese residents and merchants would be attracted to the neighborhood," said Park, who previously worked on Chinatown reconstructions in Boston and Sacramento.

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, an umbrella organization of Chinatown's 21 family, merchant and fraternal associations, is waiting word on its application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for $700,000 to acquire a vacant lot at the corner of 6th and H streets NW. Park and the CCBA hope to construct a low-income housing complex for the elderly on the site, which also would include facilities for a Chinese community center.

"There's a whole lot of intrigue here that outsiders will never be able to penetrate," said Officer Manuel Garcia, a four-year veteran of the Chinatown beat, as he shared a bag of pistachios with a group of Chinese teen-agers.

In the old days, according to police, the Chinese community often was left to solve its own serious crimes, and, when the community's investigation was complete, the culprit would simply be handed over to the authorities.

Even now, Chinatown residents have their own secret network of lending institutions - a system that gave rise to scandal when four of the banks went broke in February. "The people are generally very private and like to do things their own way," said Garcia.

"Especially the older folks," added 19-year-old Keny Wang, whose wild and bushy Chinafro hairstyle stood stiff in the warm evening wind. "Like my father, you know? He still sends money back to his clan on the mainland. Every month, like clockwork."

Wang, 14-year-old Sunny Luk, and 10-year-old Tommy Luk - all born in Hong Kong - were asked how well the Chinese get along with blacks in the area.

"The older Chinese hang out with themselves, but we have to try to get along with blacks because our schools are mainly black," said Sunny, who wore a green jade pendant around his neck and dribbled a basketball on the pavement. "They call us names like 'choo-choo' but don't bother us too much because we all know kung fu," he said.

To the neighborhood's elderly Chinese - many of whom survive on less than $3,000 a year and live in late 19th century row houses, according to a recent survey by the D.C. government - Chinatown offers companionship, authentic Chinese food and groceries, and a quiet social life in which Chinese is the dominant language.

There are complaints over such services as health care. "We really need bilingual doctors in the area," said 70-year-old Edward Lee. "There aren' any at any of the clinics around here."

And housing. "My apartment is run down," said 72-year-old Eng Choy Fung, who lives in a row house on 7th Street. "Water seeps in. I get $140 a month for welfare, but it's not enough after my rent ($75) is paid. It's a good thing my son helps me out."

And crime. Muggings continue to plague the neighborhood's elderly, some of whom sleep with the money under their mattresses and never leave home after dark. Nonetheless, violent crime, according to police statistics, is down 11 percent since the late 1960s.

An elderly man, buying a pack of gum at the counter of Luk's Delicatessan on 7th Street, described how he was mugged recently. "Two kids, one in front, one in back," he said disgustedly. "Right when I was coming out of church."

Sipping tea and chatting loudly in Cantonese, 75 members of the Washington Chinese Senior Citizens Association gathered in a Chinatown social hall recently. At the head table sat three old men whose June birthdays the group was honoring. "A long life to one and all," read a bright red and gold wall hanging in graceful Chinese characters.

Tom Yuen was there, eating a chicken lunch and trading tales with old friends.