NEW YORK — A Chinese tycoon’s effort to treat hundreds of homeless New Yorkers to a fancy lunch in Central Park fell apart Wednesday, with people booing, yelling and cursing when they found out he wasn’t giving them cash.
Recycling magnate Chen Guangbiao, known for his eccentric gestures, selected a menu of sesame-seed-encrusted tuna, beef filet and berries with crème fraiche for the residents of the oldest homeless shelter in the country. He regaled his 250 guests by singing “We are the World” and performed magic tricks at the event.
About three dozen volunteer waiters wore uniforms similar to those once worn by soldiers in China’s People’s Liberation Army, bearing the words “Serve the People.”
“I’m looking forward to a good time and a good meal,” said Antone Hills, a shelter resident. “I think he’s a good guy and he’s helping our country.”
Wads of cash, clipped together, filled wire baskets at the restaurant, and Chen waved some of the money in front of his guests.
But when the attendees discovered that they would not be given the cash, an uproar ensued, with some yelling, “We want it now!”
Officials from the New York City Rescue Mission urged Chen not to hand out cash because many of the guests are being treated for addictions and the money could be better used for their programs.
Others waiting outside, unable to get in because they were not registered, booed and cursed Chen, yelling “liar” and “con man.”
“Our thought was if someone wants to treat them to an amazing event—something they would never experience on their own, maybe even a kernel of hope that life could be different again, we’re in for that reason. That’s our motive,” said the shelter’s executive director, Craig Mayes.
Chen said he wants to disprove the cliché image of rich Chinese spending money mostly on luxuries. His English language business card reads: “MOST CHARASMATIC PHILANTHROPIST OF CHINA.”
“I was not born into a rich family or a family of government officials. When I was 4 years old, my brother and sister died of hunger, so I achieved my success through confidence, self-motivation and my hard work,” Chen said in Chinese in an interview on CBS.
His worth is estimated $750 million.
Chen’s American ambitions go beyond philanthropy. Earlier this year, the 46-year-old businessman wanted to buy The New York Times. Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., said the newspaper was not for sale.
Wednesday’s luncheon wasn’t the first of his theatrical antics.
To protest air pollution in Beijing, he stood on a street corner handing out containers marked “Fresh Air.” He also rushed to the scene of a massive earthquake in Sichuan and handed out cash to victims.
On Tuesday in New York City, he was on the street handing out $100 bills to anyone who looked like they needed money.