In the annals of China-U.S. relations, this will go down as one of the stranger days on record.
The venue was the boathouse inside New York’s Central Park, a genteel establishment conducive to long lunches that overlooks a sparkling pond. The host was Chen Guangbiao, a Chinese tycoon who made his fortune in recycling. And the guests were about 250 down-and-out New Yorkers, most of them recruited from a local homeless shelter.
To call Mr. Chen a tycoon is to belittle his ambitions. His business card features several titles, including “Most Influential Person of China,” “Most Prominent Philanthropist of China,” and “China Moral Leader.” He once handed out cans filled with air to draw attention to the country’s pollution problem and crushed his own Mercedes to highlight the threat of global warming.
His quest on Wednesday was to bring his signature blend of altruism and egomania to New York. It didn’t quite go as planned – at one point, the recipients of Mr. Chen’s largesse rebelled.
The event started out well enough, with guests arriving on air-conditioned buses that ferried them to the park from a shelter downtown. “We don’t get a lot, truth be told, and we don’t usually get the best,” said Sharon Robinson, 31. “Without that man, there’s no way we’d be able to experience this.”
Just ahead, waiters wearing black tie stood stone-faced carrying trays of iced tea and chilled juice. On the menu: sesame-crusted tuna, followed by filet mignon. “I’m a VIP!” shouted Ms. Robinson as she disappeared into the glass pavilion where the guests were seated.
Prior to the event, Mr. Chen had taken out full-page ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal inviting 1,000 of the city’s “poor and destitute” to a delicious meal and offering to give each person $300. He wanted to “spread the message in the U.S. that there are good philanthropists in China and not all are crazy spenders on luxury goods,” Mr. Chen told the South China Morning Post.
But the New York City Rescue Mission, the homeless shelter working with Mr. Chen, was leery of his plan to hand out cash, noting that some residents are struggling with substance abuse. The organization reached an agreement with Mr. Chen where he would contribute to the shelter rather than give money to the attendees.
At the luncheon, the guests finished their meal with berries topped with crème fraîche. Mr. Chen, clad in a navy suit and wearing a beatific smile, sang a Chinese song devoted to Lei Feng, a soldier whom the Communist Party turned into an icon of the model citizen. Later he serenaded the diners with a rendition of We Are the World in English. He showed off a few minor magic tricks.
Susie Yu, 20, was one of several dozen volunteers dressed in mock uniforms of the People’s Liberation Army – apparently a tribute to Lei Feng by Mr. Chen. “People are so happy to finally sit down somewhere comfortable for a meal,” she said.
Then some guests angrily asked where the money was. “When you tell people they’re going to get money, they want it now,” said Thomas Reynolds, a formerly homeless person who attended the lunch. Mr. Chen responded that he would come to the shelter and give it out himself, much to the dismay of the organization’s staff.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Michelle Tolson, the shelter’s public relations chief, as people jostled for the exit. “The New York City Rescue Mission doesn’t give out cash, but Mr. Chen can if he wants to.” Her next task: “to make sure chaos doesn’t ensue.”
Everyone, it seemed, had something to tell Mr. Chen. There were protesters outside the boathouse, loudly signaling their opposition to the Chinese government and to the recycling tycoon (one sign read, in Chinese and English: Evil Clown. Stolen Money. Get Out.)
A few feet away, Gary Phaneuf of Staten Island stood bellowing his support. “How dare these people spit on China?” he yelled. “China’s rising up! The West is falling down!”
At the conclusion of the event, some attendees pronounced themselves satisfied. “It’s a very wonderful establishment, I recommend it,” said Lawrence Jefferson, 53, as he exited the boathouse. “The steak – you could cut it with a butter knife.”
He didn’t mind that he hadn’t received the promised $300. He had, however, hoped to interact with Mr. Chen, which wasn’t possible in the crush of cameras surrounding the multimillionaire.
“Only in America,” Mr. Jefferson said. “It was a media circus.”