The Eccentric Chinese Billionaire Who Loves New York Tried Again Today to Win Over the City

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Chinese philanthropist Chen Guangbiao (C) poses with men holding gifts of money as he hosts a lunch for several hundred homeless people from the New York City Rescue Mission June 25, 2014 at The Boathouse restaurant in New York's Central Park. Chen also was to give USD $300 to each participant in the lunch. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA        (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Chen Guangbiao posing with his lunch guests. Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Back in January, Chen Guangbiao wasn’t sure he had made enough of an impression during his visit to New York City. “How many Americans know that I am in New York right now?” the Chinese recycling mogul and philanthropic stuntman asked New York, when we met him at his hotel. The visit, during which he held a wacky press conference, serenaded the media with a song he had written, and handed out scarves in Central Park to ward off the polar vortex, left people mostly bemused. Who was this guy? Harmless self-promoter? An insane person? Or, more darkly, a tool of the communist regime? Chen was clearly unsatisfied. “I’ll be back,” he promised us, Terminator style.

This week, he was, this time with a grander, simpler plan for getting Americans' attention: free lunch. He would take several hundred of the city’s homeless people to lunch at the Central Park Boathouse, Chen announced in full-page ads in the Times and the Journal, and at the end, give them all $300 in cash. The latter part of the plan was quickly nixed by the city's homeless shelters, on the grounds that many of their residents have addictions and a sudden influx of cash would not be helpful to them. But the New York Rescue Mission agreed to take its residents to the event on Wednesday, where upwards of 200 of them dined on filet mignon and seared tuna and listened to their host perform a warbling rendition of “We Are the World.”

As Chen predicted, this was a stunt New York City could not ignore. “Seems like there’s more media than actual guests,” Business Insider’s Julia LaRoche tweeted from the event. So many reporters had shown up, in fact, that many were forced to wait outside. “We’re not letting anymore in,” a gruff security guard who looked like a character actor playing a security guard told reporters from outlets like the AP, the BBC, and NPR.

When a guest with a chin piercing escaped from behind the gated area where the lunch was being held, they fell upon him like a pack of hungry dogs. “It was weird,” the guest recalled, visibly shaken. “He was doing magic tricks. And there was a puppy …” Another shelter resident circulated, offering to show video of the proceedings on his Android for cash donations. He was wearing a People’s Liberation Army uniform given to him by Chen’s people. “This is all mine,” he said proudly, smoothing the red armband. “They ain’t getting this back.”

Photo: Jessica Pressler

That was, apparently, all he was getting. “He’s lying about the $300!” another resident yelled, as the gates to the Boathouse closed. “Lying!” As the residents made their way back to the bus, a rumor began circulating that Guangbiao was going to pass out the promised $300 down at the shelter. “If he don’t, he gonna have a problem,” said one resident. “They got like 250, 300 people down there, and they gonna get angry.” But this man was taking off in the opposite direction. “I got a belly full of filet, and I got places to be,” he said. “I’m not running all over town for $300.” He snorted, unimpressed. “In New York, that’s like $3.”