‘I kept my US$300,000 promise’: Chen Guangbiao defends himself after homeless debacle

Tycoon admits he knew the night before he wouldn't be handing out cash, but shrugs off flak and says he is eyeing Africa next

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 6:38pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 8:02pm

Chinese recycling mogul Chen Guangbiao today fought back at criticisms after his philanthropic luncheon for the homeless in New York devolved into heated arguments when the promised cash handouts were cancelled.

Chen, speaking to the South China Morning Post upon his return home to Nanjing this morning, insisted he had kept his promise to help 1,000 underprivileged New Yorkers by donating US$300,000 to a local shelter.

That is the total amount he would have handed out to the American homeless, stated in a The New York Times advert he placed last week in which he promised US$300 in cash at the lunch in Central Park’s Boathouse restaurant.

However, hundreds of would-be beneficiaries yesterday bombarded Chen with accusations he was a fraud when the tycoon announced after the meal that the plan had changed.

Chen acknowledged he was persuaded – the night before the event – by the New York City Rescue Mission that cash payouts was not the best way to help the underprivileged. The Mission helped organise the lunch and invited 250 of its residents to attend.

”The Mission told me the homeless would spend my money on drugs and alcohol,” he said. “I thought distributing cash was a good idea. If I gave cash to the poor in China, they would use it to buy agricultural products and services.”

He chalked up the confusion to a “cultural difference between the East and the West”.

WATCH: Chen Guangbiao explains his penchant for grand gestures

Apart from the donation to the shelter, Chen said he spent US$80,000 on the luncheon, US$200,000 on the full-page Times advert, the same amount for a Wall Street Journal advert and US$150,000 for a public relations firm.

The tycoon also cut the number of guests to 250 yesterday, at the behest of the police who feared a get-together of 1,000 homeless people would cause chaos in Central Park.

Despite his agreement with the Mission to cross off cash giveaways from the agenda, Chen wheeled a cash-filled cart onstage and asked some guests, each holding three US$100 bills, to pose with him for group photos.

”I invited seven guests to the stage and gave them the promised US$300. So people know my idea [of a cash giveaway],” Chen said.

Organisers told reporters the money in the photos were handed back. Calls to the Mission were not immediately answered.

As the realisation set in that they wouldn’t be getting the money, several homeless people rushed at Chen and called him a “fraud”. They later told foreign media that they felt “used” and “exploited”.

Speaking to the Post yesterday, a member of the organising committee also said many volunteers backed out of the event when they realised Chen was putting together a spectacle. Volunteers were asked to dress up in green military uniforms and to perform a Chinese patriotic song as the guests ate their three-course meal.

"Only two or three out of a dozen student volunteers from Columbia University stayed when they learned about the dress code,” said the organiser, who declined to be named.

Chen explained that the uniforms embodied the spirit of his role model, Lei Feng, a People's Liberation Army soldier touted by the government in the early 1960s as a model citizen who devoted himself to helping others.

Despite telling reporters at the event’s close that he still planned to treat 1,000 needy to fine meals, Chen told the Post today that he did not have further charity plans in New York except for more donations to the Mission. The philanthropist is eyeing on Africa instead, saying he would donate electronic devices to local schools next year.

Before jetting out to America, Chen said in a previous interview said the New York event aimed to inspire Wall Street tycoons to learn from him and help others.

In response to criticisms he did it only for publicity, Chen said: “It would be good if people could spend some real money putting together a charity show. At least I spent over US$1 million as promised.”

Chen is a colourful figure known in China for handing out cash to the poor in the street, and in America for a memorable news junket where he sang karaoke and gave out hyperbolic business cards. He ranks among China’s richest with an estimated wealth of US$825 million.