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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now we go to Shanghai, where NPR's Louisa Lim reports on how the spread of cars is changing everything from leisure activities to Chinese courtship rituals.

LOUISA LIM: Back in the 1980's, young married couples in China aspired to own a bicycle, a sewing machine, a watch and a radio. How times have changed. Nowadays in Chinese cities, many grooms-to-be often feel they must first own a car, a flat and a laptop before they can even think about getting serious. Twenty-year-old Ding Jin(ph) has just got his first set of wheels, a Chevrolet, and says it might help him find a girl. It's clearly a status symbol, a sign of upward mobility.

Mr. DING JIN: (Through translator) When you were younger and went from bicycle to motorbike, you moved up a rung, he says. Now upgrading from motorbike to car, it's another step up. And his father, Ding Young Sun(ph), has big ambitions for the boy with the American car.

Mr. DING YOUNG SUN: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JIN: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughing)

LIM: Can you find him an American wife? He asks me, only half joking. Father and son have come to the Chevrolet showroom with family friend Zhan Wen Xiang(ph). They're persuading him to shell out $12,000 for a car for his son.

(Soundbite of banging)

LIM: On the other side of town, Yu Li(ph) unlocks a cabinet in his office. He takes out an opium pipe from Sichuan in Southwest China, a carved coconut from Hainan Island in the south and a wooden-abacus-cum-back scratcher from Shanxi in Central China. These are treasured mementos of the quarter of a million miles he's driven in the past five years. Yu Li runs Black Horse Car club. He started this touring car club just five years ago, but already has 16,000 members. Their lives have been changed, he says, by their cars.

Mr. YU LI (Founder, Black Horse Car Club): (Through translator) Of course owning a car increases your freedom, says Yu Li. We go where we like, stay as long as we want. It's not like the past, when we had our movements and thoughts controlled by tour guides.

LIM: He even allows non-car owners to join the club, preferring to think of them as future car owners. As for today's figures tipping the US from the top spot, analysts say it may not last for the whole year. But back in the showroom, smart-talking Chevy salesman Wen Xiang sees it as the natural order of the world.

Mr. ZHAN WEN XIANG (Chevrolet Salesman): (Through translator) The Olympic Games said it all, he says. China was the gold medal champion. Our population is much bigger than the US, so overtaking the US is very normal. It's nothing to be proud of.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

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