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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Want to remind you of a moment from the first day of this earthquake when we heard from NPR's Melissa Block, who was there, that people after rushing out in the streets of Chengdu to get out of buildings that they were afraid would fall were all on their cell phones sending text messages. That turns out to be the way that the first word got out about this earthquake, in a country where some 600 million people have cell phones.

From Shanghai, NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: The earthquake in southwestern China was felt here in Shanghai. The city's ubiquitous high-rises began to shake around 2:30 in the afternoon, and office workers poured out into the streets. Many pulled out their cell phones. This woman, who would only give her surname, Lee, says she started to text message her friends in Sichuan and quickly and learned they were fine.

Ms. LEE (Shanghai Resident): (Chinese spoken)

SYDELL: Lee says now many of her friends are living in tents and they can't recharge their batteries, so she sends them text messages because they require less energy than a phone call.

Many Chinese needed to hear the voices of their loved ones. Vina Wunee(ph) works in this large modern office building in the Pudong District of Shanghai. As soon as she heard about the quake, she tried calling her parents up in Sichuan Province. She got one phone call through and learned they were safe. But since then she's been texting.

Ms. VINA WUNEE (Shanghai Resident): (Through translator) Because it was very difficult to get the call through and the signals were very bad, so I started to think maybe I should try a text message; then I tried to text message my father.

SYDELL: It has been working, and that is how Vina is keeping track of her family. But it's not like Vina wouldn't be texting her family anyway. Like hundreds of millions of Chinese, she often prefers text messages to phone calls.

Alvin Wayne Graylin in the CEO of M-Info, a mobile search and advertising firm based in Shanghai.

Mr. ALVIN WAYNE GRAYLIN (CEO, M-Info): I have an aunt who's 67 and, you know, that's her preferred way to communicate with me.

SYDELL: According to Graylin, China sends more text messages per user than any other nation.

Mr. GRAYLIN: It's really the preferred way of using your phone. In fact, I'll probably send somewhere around 20 to 30 SMS message a day, but I'll make maybe five calls.

SYDELL: Graylin says Chinese prefer texting for many reasons - it's about half the price of a phone call; almost no one in China has voice mail so it's the best way to be certain that someone gets a message.

Mr. GRAYLIN: It is a very practical tool, and it's very easy. The user doesn't require any fancy phones, it works on everything, and it's very reliable. It's something like 99.9 percent arrival rates.

SYDELL: Graylin says in China there are even text message-only phone plans for students. Vina Wunee, whose family is still in Sichuan, is happy that she can text her family regularly. But she says even when life is normal, she sends text messages to her father just tell him small details about her day.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, Shanghai, China.

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