KWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA, JUNE 28 -- From under the huge white cross atop the Presbyterian church came the plaintive strains of a familiar song.

The singer, a student, had climbed the building and perched under the cross. Through a loudspeaker, he sang the "Song of May," a ballad about the bloody uprising here seven years ago in which more than 200 people were killed.

Its meaning was not lost on the hundreds of people who gathered at street corners below during a lull in clashes Saturday night between students and riot police along the city's main Kumnam Avenue.

"The people of Kwangju will surely capture democracy with peaceful means," shouted one man, overcome by emotion.

All over South Korea, people look to Kwangju as the new flashpoint in the fight against Chun. Hostility toward President Chun Doo Hwan probably runs deeper here than anywhere in South Korea.

Chun is blamed for the deaths here after he ordered troops into the city on May 18, 1980 to quell student demonstrations. Even before that, Kwangju was an opposition stronghold, home turf for leading opposition figure Kim Dae Jung.

But, even though this city of 900,000 people has had almost daily street protests since nationwide demonstrations erupted nearly three weeks ago, Kwangju residents remain traumatized by the loss of so many lives and are deeply fearful of triggering a repeat of the 1980 killings.

Official newspaper reports said about 20,000 people took part in Friday's antigovernment demonstration here, as part of a nationwide protest. But people in Kwangju say it was much larger, with estimates by protest organizers running to 300,000.

Demonstrators and riot police alike have been unwilling to escalate their battles beyond certain unspoken levels of force, according to Moon Byong Ram, a local activist who helped organize the demonstration on Friday.

He said the recent demonstrations have drawn more people than those in 1980. The difference is that there is far less violence, he said: "People do not want to make the same kind of sacrifices."

There is no mistaking the intense dislike of the government, however.

Last week, a rumor swept the city that a taxi driver had turned in to the police a professor and student who had made remarks against the government while riding in his cab, according to one city resident. Taxis are considered one of the few places where people can safely speak their minds.

Twelve taxis belonging to the Shinhung Taxi Co., the largest in Kwangju, were burned. Drivers for the company quickly issued a statement saying they also hated the government and even staged their own counter-protest, parking about 100 taxis along the main street at the peak of rush hour.

Dissident leaders say ordinary people here are more open in their support for the student demonstrations than in other cities.

A few days ago, several elderly women reportedly poured buckets of dirty washing water onto riot police. Some shopkeepers along the main street in the city's downtown have given the students food and drink.

Many who have been forced to close their businesses several hours early for nearly every one of the past 18 days grumble about the inconvenience. But they say it is clear where the blame lies.

"If the government did the right thing, this wouldn't happen," said a 52-year-old man whose store sells sports trophies and other knickknacks. This afternoon, many hours after last night's demonstration had ended, the store was still reeking of tear gas.

"The people want to have a better life. They don't like the present system," he said.

So far, the memories of the 1980 riot have worked as a restraining force. But some fear what might happen if the demonstrations continue and troops are called in to augment the exhausted police.

"The situation is very bad," said the Rev. Nam Jae Hy, who heads the Namdong Catholic Church here. He described the situation as being in a holding pattern. "But it can go up sharply or go down sharply at any moment," he said.

The people of this city have historically had a strong fighting spirit, and they are proud of it.

"They will fight if they have to fight," said one woman, the owner of a drugstore on the main street. "The people of Kwangju fight like hell, and they are stronger in seeking justice than in any other areas of the country."

That sentiment is not lost on the riot police here. According to Moon, one young police officer arrived in his office Thursday to hand a letter to President Chun, saying he could no longer fire tear gas at the demonstrators.

The letter, which was signed "a riot policeman having no courage," said the police did not fear the stones or fire bombs of demonstrators. "But we are afraid of the eyes of the demonstrators," it said.