China Billionaire's Homeless Lunch Becomes Spectacle

A highly-publicized free lunch for New York City's homeless, paid for by a Chinese billionaire, has ended in recriminations and anger among many who attended.

Chinese entrepreneur Chen Guangbiao had high hopes for the event -- billed as a free lunch for 1,000 homeless people in an upscale Central Park restaurant. It wound up looking more like an ideological talent show, however, ending in disaster.

The menu included sesame tuna, salad, beef steak, and dessert. Craig, who would only give his first name, said he had never been to fancy restaurant before.

"Mr. Chen bought us a delicious lunch. It's so yummy," he said.

Li, who would give only his family name, said the lunch made him feel proud to be Chinese. "Chinese are rich, they stand in foreign countries, they have earned a reputation for us Chinese, and have won honor for us," he said.

◆ Talent Show

But the event that started with such good feelings soon turned sour, starting with the talent show. Chen Guangbiao sang "We Are the World," did magic tricks, and then sang a Chinese song that advocated Maoism. Some volunteers at the event were even dressed in old replica uniforms of China's People's Liberation Army.

Finally, came the money portion of the evening. And things went from odd to angry.

One of highlights billed for the event was that Chen would give $300 to each homeless person. Five lucky people did get their money. But the rest were left wanting.

The New York City Rescue Mission that worked with Chen objected to giving away cash to the homeless based on their long-term experience working with that population.

◆ Broken Promise

Michelle Tolson, the Mission's Director of Public Relations, said, "Giving cash to homeless is not good idea. Thus, he [Chen Guangbiao] has chosen to donate $90,000 to New York City Rescue Mission."

That position did not sit well with many of the assembled homeless.

"The mission got the money and we got nothing. Nothing. They got $90,000 and we're still living on the street," said one homeless person at the event.

"You don't play with people like this. You tell them the freaking truth. Not like a politician, who smiles and tells you what you want to hear," said another person at the lunch.

Only 200 homeless were allowed in, despite previous advertising that said more than 1,000 would be fed. Chen says the rest will be given lunch on another date.

VOA News / Jun. 27, 2014 08:16 KST