During World War II, soldiers at what was a major U.S. air base raced jeeps along these narrow streets. Now the first three Americans to come here to live in 30 years are indignant to hear that they have been forbidden even to ride their bicycles to work.

It is a small but telling conflict, one of many produced by a vanguard of U.S. teachers who have in the last few weeks brought bits of America back to remote parts of China.

Memories of wartime are weak but interest and concern about the United States here remains strong. So a few Americans isolated in China's vastness find satisfactions and frustrations, illuminating how much has changed in the delicate balance of West and East.

"We're considered very fragile and slightly feebleminded," said Elisabeth (Ben) Benson Booz, 53, a longtime Washington resident. Since their Feb. 15 arrival, she, her son Paddy, 24, and a 28-year-old University of Texas staffer, Steve Thorpe, have become the only Americans in three decades to settle in this city of 1.5 million on China's southwest plateau.

During World War II, this was the end of the Hump, the air route over the Himalayas from India that brought China vital supplies. The town became then, in places, a collection of brothels and bars, now all vanished.

The three newly arrived Americans live in the somewhat seedy Kunming Hotel. They teach English at two universities and try to reintroduce the West to China with a half-semester course on everything that has happened in the English-speaking world since 1400.

In return they are entitled to faculty fringe benefits their U.S. Army predecessors would have enjoyed-one liter of free moonshine made at the still on Yunnan University farm. "It's swell," said Ben Booz.

At her hotel dining table one recent evening, however, Booz was preoccupied by her letter of protest against official disapproval of her bicycle riding in kunming's cycle-jammed streets.

"Think that's strong enough?" she asked a visitor, amid a rapid-fire description of China's delights and annoyances.

Life for the new U.S. residents here has demanded as much diplomatic skill and bureaucratic delay as the negotiations between American Gen. Joseph Stilwell and Chinese Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in World War II. Thorpe thought nothing of it when a female student asked to see him in his office, but was later warned by a Chinese colleague not to let it happen again.

Such innocent behavior offends the strict moral code of modern China. During the war, the diseases of Kunming's red-light district took such a toll of Gen. Claire Chennault's American pilots that he imported officially sanitized Indian prostitutes. Stilwell, Chennault's superior, was enraged when he heard of this, and the animosity between the two men affected the war effort from then on. The sexual side of this story would shock Kunming's residents today, but bureaucratic squabbles they knew about.

Paddy Booz, a recent Wisconsin graduate, must attend a high-level meeting with university officials to discuss his request to go to Hong Kong to buy, with his own money, a duplicating machine. Good English-teaching materials are practically nonexistent, so the Americans must make their own.

Ben Booz said, "At this moment they are knocking themselves out to make us comfortable. They are installing the first flush toilet in the university, in the little house they're building for us."

Thorpe noted that the dormitory room he plans to move into also had a flush toilet. Paddy Booz said, "But ours has a seat."

The Boozes and Thorpe were accepted as part of the first wave of American teachers into Communist China within a week after the Dec. 15 announcement of normalized Sino-American relations. The Boozes applied last summer at the urging of an old family friend, Randolph Sailer, who had taught in Peking 30 years before and whose son is an attorney active in Washington's chapter of the U.S.-China People's Friendship Association.

Thorpe had been coordinating a Texas program for teaching high school courses on China and had led a friendship association tour of China. Be Booz is a writer, illustrator and teacher. She traveled throughout the world with her husband, Paul, an economist, until his death in 1971 of a heart attack in Indonesia.

Booz has five children, each born in a different foreign country. The opportunity to teach in China required "a big family powwow," because she could not support her two youngest children, a boy at Brown and a girl at Trinity, on the salary the Chinese could pay her. "My son said he would take over responsibility for his tuition. He might get a schorlarship, or he may have to leave school for awhile," she said.

"One top official here took us on an outing and asked me a lot of very serious questions about how much I had been earning and how I've been supporting my children, she said. It was decided to pay her about $318 a month. Her son Paddy, who just received a bachelor's degree in Asian studies after taking a year off to work with Vietnamese refugees, makes about $267 a month and Thorpe about $293. Although Chinese currency restrictions are usually severe, the Americans can convert half their salaries to foreign currency to send home.

The Kunming bank, accustomed to receiving remittances from overseas Chinese, was nonplused at the idea of sending money the other way.

"It was obvious they had never made that kind of exchange before," Ben Booz said.

The Boozes have settled into a routime at Yunnan University-and Thorpe at the Kunming Teachers College-not unlike that at American universities. Each has three to four hours of class a day. At a welcoming banquet for them, after giving his speech, the university president fell asleep.

Kunming is a city with a delightful mountain plateau climate, many shops and parks and wide streets, and an intellectual tradition dating back before the Communists took over in 1949. The universities then were protected by local warlords who, like some liberal Chinese professors, had their differences with Nationalist President Chiang Kaishek. The spot where Chiang agents allegedly murdered two Kunming scholars is marked here.

But despite this cosmopolitan history, the American scholars are still celebrities. "People almost fall off their bikes when they see us riding along," said Ben Booz. Thorpe added: "They can see we're human. They really like that."

The university officials worry that the Americans will be unable to negotiate Kunming traffic amid the thousands of cyclists, trucks and buses. They insist that the Americans be chauffered to work in one of the two university automobiles.

Besides being the only Americans, not counting a few U.S. scholars and tourists who pass through, the three teachers are apparently the only permanent resident foreigners in the city at all. Two East German radio astronomers are advising the Chinese on a project in the area and a University of Chicago scholar, James Lee, is doing research for a history dissertation, but they will be here only a few months.

The Americans' tow-year contracts are renewable.

"Our keeper [The Chinese faculty member assigned to watch over them] tells Paddy he might marry a Chinese girl and settle down. Paddy says they're all so cute he wouldn't know which one to choose," Ben Booz said.

Yunnan University has tree-shaded lanes and huge buildings, with several mud huts scattered about to house employes and a few farm animals. "We would like a couple of chickens and an herb garden," Paddy Booz said.

They ache for news and reading material from outside, just as their Chinese students of English do. They have asked friends to send current magazines and 20th Century literature. Paddy Booz has succumbed to listening to Moscow's "Radio Peace and Progress."

"One program was about the Soviet sense of humor. The Soviet Union is famous the world over for a great sense of humor," he said.

His mother, despite the bicycle furor, seems content. "I'm happy," she said, lifting a bottle filled by Kunming's local brewery, "and the beer is just great!" CAPTION: Picture, The Americans in Kunming chat in hotel dining room. From left, Paddy Booz, Steve Thorpe, Elisabeth Booz. By Jay Mathews-The Washington Post