A Chinese tycoon’s attempt to treat New York’s homeless community to a free lunch turned sour yesterday when people realised they were being offered food, not cash.
Chen Guangbiao, a recycling magnate famous for his eccentric gestures, selected a menu of sesame seed-encrusted tuna, beef fillet and berries with crème fraiche for the residents of the New York City Rescue Mission, the oldest homeless shelter in the United States.
He regalled his 250 guests by singing We Are the World and performed magic tricks at the event in Central Park.
More than 30 volunteer waiters turned up wearing uniforms similar to those once worn by soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army, bearing the words “Serve the People”.
However some of the homeless people present were less than impressed with the fine fare, claiming they thought Mr Chen was doling out money. The assumption followed newspaper reports that Mr Chen had dished out $100 bills the previous day in lower Manhattan.
Even the sight of his gourmet feast did not appease them as they booed, yelled and cursed the Chinese philanthropist.
The mood grew darker when the guests spotted wads of cash, clipped together in wire baskets, which Mr Chen waved at them. When the guests realised they were not being given money, an uproar ensued with some shouting: “We want it now!”
Meanwhile, officials from the Rescue Mission urged Mr Chen not to hand out cash because many of the guests were being treated for addictions and the money could be better used to support agencies helping them.
Others waiting outside, unable to get in because they were not registered, booed and swore at Mr Chen. Some shouted “liar” and “conman”.
“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.
At least one guest was happy with the arrangement. Antone Hills, a resident at the shelter, said: “I’m looking forward to a good time and a good meal. I think he’s a good guy and he’s helping out our country.”
Chen said he wants to disprove the clichéd image of rich Chinese spending money mostly on luxuries.
His English language business card reads: “Most charismatic philanthropist in China.”
“I was not born into a rich family or a family of government officials. When I was four years old, my brother and sister died of hunger, so I achieved my success through confidence, self-motivation and my hard work,” Mr Chen said in Chinese in an interview on American television. He is said to be worth an estimated $750 million (£450m), according to Forbes magazine.
Mr Chen’s American ambitions surpass philanthropy. Earlier this year, the 46-year-old businessman wanted to buy the New York Times. Its chairman Arthur Sulzberger jnr said the newspaper was not for sale.
The free-lunch lunch was not the first of Mr Chen’s theatrical antics.
To protest against 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 the money.