China’s most eccentric tycoon just made New York’s homeless sing for their supper. Then he did magic tricks.
- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia Editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington DC. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
NEW YORK — Lunch at Central Park’s Loeb Boathouse is an elegant affair, popular among well-heeled tourists and alumni networking associations for its lakeside view and excellent service. But on Wednesday, the restaurant hosted hundreds of homeless people, dozens of journalists, several bodyguards watching over a silver case most likely filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, two badly disfigured survivors of self-immolation, and one Chen Guangbiao. A 45-year-old recycling tycoon and self-proclaimed "China’s Top Philanthropist," Chen was in Manhattan to stage a charity event. What he ended up creating was something more like theater of the absurd — think of it as Samuel Beckett with Chinese characteristics.
While megaphone-wielding protestors standing across the street called for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party, inside the swank boathouse hundreds of homeless people bused in from a shelter picked at sesame-seed-encrusted tuna and expensive cuts of beef, and clapped politely as Chen belted out "We Are the World" — awkwardly, as Chen speaks almost no English.
"My way of doing things got a lot of criticism in China, but I hope what I’m doing here will get cheered on in the United States," he said, to mild applause. "Homeless friends of America! What I am giving you is not a fish, but a fishpole." He then quoted Chairman Mao Zedong, sang a communist song about the selfless hero Lei Feng, and performed elementary-school-level magic tricks.
Earlier in June, Chen had taken out a massive ad in the New York Times — a paper he unsuccessfully tried to buy in January — promising to host a charity luncheon for 1,000 "poor and destitute Americans," each of whom would receive $300 dollars.
Not surprisingly, in the days leading up to the event, Chen received a lot of coverage. "He smashed his own Mercedes to encourage people to ride bikes," wrote CBS. "He sold canned air to call attention to China’s air pollution problem. He’s been known to hand out red envelopes of cash to the poor. And now, he’s in America."
At 10 a.m., two hours before the Wednesday lunch, dozens of homeless people milled around in the park outside the restaurant, staring suspiciously at the fresh-faced Chinese volunteers, most of whom were incongruously dressed in the green uniforms of the 1950s People’s Liberation Army. Chen had promised tickets and cash to 1,000 homeless people, but it seemed that only a few hundred, organized by the shelter New York City Rescue Mission, would be allowed in.
"He’s a Chinese billionaire who was going to sing for us, and give us a free meal and $300, and now he’s not," said 63-year-old Frank Guiliani, who had come to the park hoping to get the free money and lunch, but who was stuck watching outside. "I had shit to do today."
Despite the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the event, the lunch felt very disorganized, as if it all had been thrown together recently. Which, indeed, it had: In his speech, Chen boasted that he organized the entire event in just a few days, after his original plans — which he didn’t elaborate on — fell through.
The waitstaff looked offended, the audio quality was reminiscent of a high-school auditorium, and there were dozens of plates of wasted food. One of the employees at the shelter complained about the dessert choice. "I suggested chocolate cake for dessert. Many of the homeless are fighting addictions, and the sugar helps with that. But they wanted to serve berries instead." Chen’s musical accompaniment for "We Are the World," a group named Audible Chocolate, had only been found the day before, when one of Chen’s employees saw them busking. "We’re NYC people, and we’re down with homeless people," said Lo Anderson, the group’s singer. "It seems like it was for a good cause."
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Chen is an easy target for ridicule, not unlike Donald Trump, that American avatar of craven self-promotion. His English-language business card proclaims that he’s the "Most Charismatic Philanthropist of China," and he seems in desperate need of validation. But like many Chinese of his generation, he comes from extreme poverty, and has something to prove.
In 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, a massive and maddening campaign to reassert control over the government that ushered in a decade of anarchy. Mao raised an army of millions of students, exhorting them to upend the traditional order and, like Lei Feng, to "serve the people." Chen was born in 1968 in a rural county in the eastern province of Jiangsu; in 1972, his brother and sister died of hunger, a fact he sometimes mentions in interviews. Chen himself "almost starved to death in a time of famine," reads promotional material for the 2011 hagiographic book China’s Top Philanthropist Chen Guangbiao.
He sold popsicles in high school and a contraption he claimed cured diseases after college, but it wasn’t until he discovered the recycling business in the mid-1990s that he found success. In the years since, he has accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth, building up a successful empire and donating, by his own estimate, tens of millions of dollars. In his office in Nanjing, he displays "4,000 honorable certificates, 20,000 hada (silk scarves presented by Tibetans to respected people), and 3,000 banners," according to the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post.
Chen burst into fame by personally leading 120 workers to help rescue victims of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed roughly 70,000 people. "I carried more than 200 bodies," he told a reporter from the U.S. business magazine Fast Company.
"I was covered in blood. When I couldn’t cradle them, I hauled them. When I couldn’t haul them, I lifted them. To this day, I still have a back problem from it."
I first met Chen in February 2011, in the midst of the U.S. financial crisis, while I was a Beijing-based correspondent for Newsweek. Chen was holding court at an expensive and ostentatious restaurant in Beijing with a group of Taiwanese and Chinese journalists. He had just returned from a high-profile trip to Taiwan, where he held a "donation ceremony" and handed out red envelopes stuffed with cash. But altruism alone isn’t quite Chen’s bag: "I think helping poor people is an experience worthy of promotion," he told me. Dreams of a political legacy also flitted through his mind. "I would donate all of my money" to build a bridge from the mainland to the small Taiwanese island of Jingmen, he said. But he stressed that he’s not representing the Chinese Communist Party. "I don’t hook myself up to the government," said Chen.
Inspired by the philanthropist billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, Chen pledged to donate all of his money after he dies. But while he’s alive, he thrills at the idea of personally distributing it himself.
As we lunched in Beijing, he became animated about the idea of giving money to laid-off Wall Street bankers at the depths of the financial crisis. "You can recommend one," he told me. "I’ll give him $5,000. This banker, after receiving my red envelope, he won’t be able to sleep. He’ll be thinking about his life. You can recommend 10 out-of-work bankers, and I’ll give each of them $5,000." (I never provided him a list; Chen called me a few weeks later, at 11:30 p.m., and said he was nixing the plan because his company wasn’t doing well.)
That didn’t crush his dreams of bringing his unique brand of philanthropy to the United States. "I’ve already surveyed American people, and they’re happy to receive an envelope full of money," he told me.
Standing on stage in an elegant Central Park restaurant and handing out cash to Americans, however, will have to remain a dream. At the end of his June 25 event, Chen learned that charity in the United States might be even more complicated than his largesse back at home. It’s unclear exactly what transpired. But it seems like although Chen had promised in his New York Times advertisement to hand out $300 to each homeless person at the lunch, Craig Mayes, the executive director of New York City Rescue Mission, refused to allow him to do so, causing a ripple of anger to spread through the crowd.
"I’m not going to allow them to distribute cash to the homeless," he reiterated to a mass of reporters who had gathered to see why several homeless people were shouting and waving their hands in the direction of Chen and Mayes. Someone knocked over a vase of roses. Chen, who doesn’t speak English, looked confused at the angry scrum Mayes’ remarks had produced. "If you give cash to homeless, some of them are going to go out and buy drugs," Mayes said.
Chen then tried to placate the crowd. "My homeless friends: I have heard that you have the highest quality of class of any homeless people in the world," a remark that the translator helpfully ignored. Trust in me and the mission, Chen offered, saying that he would give out the money later. (At press time, it’s unclear if Chen distributed the money.) Ernest St. Pierre, a 54-year-old nattily dressed homeless man who had told me earlier he was "smooth as butter" was angry. "Fuck this country," he said. "You lied to people."
The crowd of homeless people shuffled back to their bus. "So everyone is furious, that’s the takeaway," muttered a reporter from the New York Post.
Chen, however, seemed unfazed. As he made his exit, I asked him what he thought of the event. "I’m very satisfied," he said with a smile. "China is rich, and America is rich, and this was very successful in development of my U.S. philanthropy." His next plan, he told me, was to do an event distributing money somewhere in Africa.
And Chen wasn’t the only one who left feeling satisfied. To Audible Chocolate, the charity was appreciated. "They paid us decent, and it came at a great time," said Anderson. "He made it rain."