Fiercely contested volleyball games spanned several blocks of H Street NW in the heart of Chinatown last week. These were no regular games, for each team had nine players, not the American-style six, and there was no rotation. Spikers stayed up front.

"This how game play in China," said a delighted Will Pong, a retired restaurant owner who was one of hundreds lining the streets and sitting on balconies to watch the 39th Annual Chinese-American Volleyball Tournament. To change the rules of his favorite pastime would be like telling the old man to change his recipe for Peking Duck. Some things you just don't mess with. That's how Chinatown has survived.

When the event, which rotates among four cities, was last held here in 1978, there was growing concern that the city's new convention center would wipe out this six-block pocket of ancient culture and destroy the flavor of the tournament.

Now, the future of Chinatown seems as certain as a well-placed volleyball spike. Business boomed along the once-threatened strip last week as convention-goers and volleyball players alike followed their noses to the Chinese pastries, garlic, ginger and fresh fried fish.

Gary Goon, owner of the Chinatown Coffee Shop, watched the games with a pleasure born as much of his love for volleyball as from the fact that he was the only one selling coffee during the three-day tournament.

"This is a fantastic comeback for Chinatown," Goon said.

Goon was part of a coalition of Chinese-American businessmen that successfully fought to get the convention center moved away from its planned site in the middle of Chinatown with its restaurants, laundries and grocery stores. It was one of the few times that the traditionally reticent Chinese community has staged such a fight, and the main ingredient for the victory was the same one needed for volleyball--cooperation.

"The best word to describe it is 'camaraderie,' " said Henry Lee, a member of Washington's Chinese Youth Club volleyball team and resident of Chinatown for 26 years.

The tournament was started just after World War II by Chinese-American GIs who wanted to stay in touch. Although they had been born in different cities in China, and now lived throughout the United States and Canada, they found the sport of volleyball to be a tie that binds.

During the 1960s, with the arrival of another generation of Chinese-Americans, the tournament was expanded to ensure that the growing community would remain close. Soon, banquets, dances and awards ceremonies were added, making the games a major social activity.

Today, the games provide a cultural bridge, one unparalleled among modern American immigrants. Spectators of all ages kindly curse the out-of-town teams in Cantonese while encouraging the home team with the distinctly American "high five" sign. Women players wear their hair in styles ranging from Farrah Fawcett's to modified Afros to more traditional ponytails and bangs. The men, too, are graceful and muscular.

The diversity is magnificent, with heartthrobbing variations on a singularly sensuous Oriental theme.

"Let's face it," says Frank Lee, a University of Maryland graduate and member of the Washington volleyball team, "You won't get to see this many girls here for another five years. But that's for after the game."

Despite the assimilation, (most Chinese-Americans here live in the suburbs), the roots of Chinese culture seem intact and are manifested in the mutual respect between young and old.

"We promote sports for the young to stay in touch with the old," said Lawrence Locke, vice chairman of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Washington. "We have a strong history of togetherness and cultural heritage."

The sight of old Mr. Pong recapturing his youth in an H Street volleyball game says that Locke is right. Pong took pride in what he called the "big defensive" of his home teams. And even though none of them won the tournament, Pong still had reason to rejoice. In a sip of tea, a silk fan, double yolk duck eggs and awesome volleyball spikes, Chinatown lives.