NY homeless angry at China tycoon's 'publicity stunt'

2014-06-26 10:47
(Stand Honda, AFP)

(Stand Honda, AFP)

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New York - A three-course lunch hosted by an eccentric Chinese millionaire for 250 homeless New Yorkers in a posh restaurant degenerated into fury on Wednesday when guests were denied $300 cash handouts.

It had seemed such a good idea. Recycling tycoon Chen Guangbiao last week took out ads in American newspapers promising a first-rate meal at the Boathouse in Central Park and $300 each.

Guests were bussed in and treated to a sit-down meal of seared tuna, filet mignon and seasonal berries, waited on by staff in suits and bow ties, but anger flared over the cash no-show.

As Chen spoke to a gaggle of Chinese journalists while dessert was being served, one guest started shouting.

"Don't lie to the people!" Ernest St Pierre told AFP. "We came here for $300 but now he's changed his tune."

Chen announced through a translator that he was heading to the New York City Rescue Mission - which helped organise the lunch - and invited guests to join him there.

"This individual who’s filthy rich put it in the paper," St Pierre, a former US Navy medic, told reporters.

Retired Vietnam War veteran Harry Brooks told reporters he would be "highly upset" if he didn't get the cash, despite enjoying the food "very much."

"I could use $300," he said. "Clothing for one thing," he said gesturing at his shabby attire when asked how he would spend it.

Not all guests were unhappy. Many said they enjoyed the food and called the experience "beautiful," saying they were touched that someone had flown all the way from China wanting to help.

'Fraud'

But as they were herded outside to queue up to get the bus back, complaints multiplied.

Quin Shabazz, aged 34, said he felt the homeless had been exploited and branded the lunch - covered by a mob of TV cameras and reporters - "a big publicity stunt."

Al Johnson, aged 42, said he had been banking on the money to get his life together and go home to his family in Texas.

"This was going to change my life," he said. "Fraud. This is fraud with a capital F," he added. "I feel used for a photo op."

Craig Mayes, executive director of the New York City Rescue Mission, was left to deny there had been any injustice.

"I'm really sorry. It was misrepresented in the paper," he said.

Michelle Tolson, director of public relations at the Mission, said on Tuesday that no cash would be handed out to individuals and that it had taken 1.5 months of negotiations to convince Chen to instead donate $90 000 to the group.

The money would be ploughed straight into the Mission's $5mn yearly expenses to feed and house people, she said.

The shelter provides people with a hot meal, a clean shower and a safe bed, clothing and assistance in addressing their problems.

‘He’s an embarrassment’

Chen, known for publicity stunts and reportedly worth an estimated $825mn, serenaded his guests with a rendition of the 1985 charity single "We Are the World."

The smiling, bespectacled businessman said he wanted to give back after wealthy Americans had contributed to relief efforts after disasters in China.

"Hopefully, I will really lead the way to encourage other people who are in a position to help to follow through," he said.

But Chinese Internet users reacted with derision.

Chen has previously sold cans of supposed fresh air on Beijing's polluted streets, and said he wanted to buy the New York Times.

"He's an embarrassment and he has now proved it overseas," said one poster on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo, asking him: "Would you die if you stopped creating hype? The central government please rush to take him back and put him into a madhouse."

Another asked: "What is Chen Guangbiao's background? He's like a clown... Isn't there anyone to investigate where his money comes from?"

Coalition for the Homeless says around 60 000 homeless men, women and children bed down in New York's shelters and thousands more sleep rough on the streets or elsewhere.

The number of homeless New Yorkers has risen by 75% since 2002 and in recent years has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s, according to the advocacy group.


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