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Chinese tycoon Chen Guangbiao takes 250 homeless people to New York's Boathouse restaurant for lunch

Lavish meal fails to impress after $300 handout withdrawn

BY DAVID USBORNE

To say it was an unlikely gathering at the Loeb Boathouse restaurant, beside the water in Central Park, would be an understatement.

Ten minutes earlier a convoy of buses had drawn up outside, bearing 250 homeless men who normally get their meals and usually a bed for the night too at the New York City Rescue Mission. The “lets-do-lunch ladies” from the Upper East Side were strangely absent on this particular Wednesday.

The men were all guests of a Chinese recycling tycoon named Chen Guangbiao, who has been in New York since last week attempting to play the role of Santa Claus to the city’s poor and disaffected. The lunch was to be his pièce de résistance; a grand giveaway for a lucky few among Gotham’s down and outs – sesame encrusted tuna followed by beef fillet and berries with crème fraiche. Alcohol was not served.

The men looked variously intimidated, excited, bored and, as was soon to become evident, a little bit angry.

“I like it where I am now,” said Bertholo Pollas, 38, a Haitian with an unusually bright smile. Carlos Rodriguez, 42, from Puerto Rico was completely in accord. “This is a lifetime thing for me. I am really excited to be here and I am really appreciative.” Mr Rogriguez has lived in the Mission for two years and he, like most of the other guests, could never have imagined taking a meal in a place like the Boathouse.

But Mr Chen broke a few rudimentary rules of hospitality. Like the one that says the host must show a little humility and not talk too much. He talked a great deal. Unwise also was breaking into song with a wobbly rendition of “We are the World”.

The real fly in the soup was the news that slowly began to filter through the room that, contrary to reports in the morning’s newspapers – the New York Post, with trusty racist flair, called him “Mr Fortune Kooky” – he would not after all be ending the lunch with a goody bag, $300 each in cash for every man there. When at the end of the lunch they were ushered back to the buses empty-handed, many were clearly angry.

This misstep by the host was forced on him by the Mission, which demanded instead that it receive the cash for programs. The reason, seemingly, is its worry that many of its clients would simply use the cash to buy illicit drugs. The shelter provides people with a hot meal, a clean shower and a safe bed, clothing and assistance in addressing their problems.

From the stage, Mr Chen – trying not to let his smile slip – insisted he would get the money to them later. The Mission was insisting to reporters that he would not.

“We work with the homeless every day, many of them unfortunately have drink and drugs problems, and it just isn’t a good idea to give that sort of cash out to people,” said Michelle Tolson, the mission’s spokeswoman.

“Mr Chen agreed that he would donate the $90,000 to the mission and that is the basis on which we are here today.”

Mr Rodriguez didn’t hide his disappointment: “I had hoped to buy clothes.” Robert Cruz, 40, was altogether cross. “They misled everyone by changing everything at the last moment,” he said, adding that if he’d known he wouldn’t have come, beef fillet or no beef fillet, but would have tried to find a casual day of work. “Not everybody here is a drug addict. We’re just trying to live day by day.”

Thus it wasn’t quite the happy meal Mr Chen had surely envisaged. His grand gesture had turned out to be slightly less grand, but still none of us were left in doubt about his remarkableness.

It was there to see on the handy DVD we were each given, detailing all his various accomplishments on its sleeve. “Most Influential Person of China, Most Prominent Philanthropist of China, China Moral Leader, China Earthquake Rescue Hero, Most Well-known and Beloved Chinese Role Model, Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China...”

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