When visiting Ciào Salon, you’ll likely find owner Chau Hua wearing shorts and a concert T-shirt, clipping away. The easygoing stylist likes to keep it casual at work and in life. “I don’t feel like I work much,” Hua said. “I feel like I am hanging with my friends when I work and having fun doing what I do best, cutting hair.”
Behind her laid-back attitude, however, is a driving ambition to create and succeed, which is fueled by her love of family and zest for life. “I wanted to be able to take care and be there for my family, as they are for me,” Hua said. “There is a certain lifestyle I would like to live.”
But as a teen, Hua wasn’t so focused. In middle school, her mother caught her smoking pot. Her proactive parents sent Hua directly to Odyssey House Texas, which treats and educates youth and families touched by drugs, alcohol and addiction. Next, she was sent to an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Tennessee. Still unhappy, she transferred to a Methodist school, also in Tennessee. But by the time Hua was a junior in high school, she was back in Houston and attending Clements High School.
A fortuitous jaunt to a hair show during her sophomore year at Clements would change the course of the troubled teen’s life and introduce Hua to what would become her passion and her career. “I saw a Toni & Guy show and asked my parents to quit school and got my [diploma],” she said.
Hua enrolled in the company’s academy and was immediately hooked on hair. She would remain with Toni & Guy for the next 12 years, learning the trade, working and traveling all over Texas to do hair shows for the company. But for the ambitious Hua, this was just the beginning. “I always wanted my own business,” she said. “I needed the education and needed to save enough money to go out on my own. I worked like seven days a week. I sold everything: my condo, my car, and I asked my parents to be my partners.”
That was in 2009; now the property she bought for the salon is nearly paid off. Hua’s distinguished clientele at Ciào is diverse and includes Houston’s top chefs, doctors and lawyers as well as creative types and people in every age group, from children to senior citizens. The stylist’s quick laugh and warm but straightforward demeanor has turned many a client into a friend over the years. Relying exclusively on word-of-mouth, the business has grown, and soon Hua will launch a boutique in the salon. It will bear the apt moniker, the Rumor. Additionally, Hua is in the planning stages of opening a hair school. “I want to give back to my colleagues,” she said. “When we are in our 40s and 50s, we don’t want to stand around our chairs on our feet all day; we want to teach.”
Hua’s spirit of giving harkens back to her days at Odyssey House. Upon her return to Houston in high school, she was asked by the organization’s director to come and talk about her story and her success in the program. “I went almost once a week [to talk to the kids],” she said. “I’m weird but successful. I think the kids bond with me.”
Audrey Trotti, Hua’s girlfriend of three years, said that even in the salon, Hua is a mentor to her younger clientele. “People come to her, call her for advice,” Trotti said. “She is straight up—if you need an ear, she’ll give it. They look up to her, because of her nature and her success.”
When asked how they met, Hua and Trotti pointed to their dog Gus. “Him,” Trotti said.
Trotti (a member of Houston’s distinguished Beck family) is founder and president of Intermodal, a firm specializing in consulting in transit-oriented development, station design, transit planning and adaptive reuse of historic buildings. The two were in one another’s orbit through mutual friends for years before dating. Their relationship began to take shape when Hua was in the process of opening the salon. At the time, the stylist with a shock of short, platinum blonde hair was moving in with new roommates and needed to find a home for her beloved Gus. Trotti was recently divorced and had come back to Houston after living in England.
“When I met Chau, I was like, ‘hello,’” Trotti said. “But I thought she was not ready. I think these things work out with timing. I was looking for someone who wants to have a good life and be healthy.” Trotti offered to take in the pit bull mix, but after a week of visitations, she said her offer was on the condition that Gus would be a foster dog and would eventually go back to Hua. “I’d bring food, and we’d chat,” Hua said.
“She charmed me with food,” Trotti chimed in. Over Chinese and Thai cuisine and their shared love of Gus, their unexpected relationship was born. As she talked, Trotti walked over to the stove, grabbed the cast iron teapot and freshened Hua’s cup. Gus and Lola, a former foster dog that Trotti adopted last year, were close at hand, contributing to the domestic scene in the kitchen. Gus stared out the back door, off the kitchen, in the couple’s Montrose house. Gutted when the couple moved into it in early 2011, it has been a labor of love. A little more than a year later, the cozy refuge features antiques from the couple’s travels, a gourmet kitchen and a garden in the backyard.
I knew her, and I knew her history,” said Hua, sipping her tea. “But by nature, I’m not scared and I flirt.”
As a young girl—or a young tomboy, as it were—Hua said a friend once advised her to look past labels and instead just make a list of the qualities you like in a person and the things you like to do. In Trotti, she saw those qualities and a person with whom she could talk. “I had a struggle at an early age trying to label myself as a homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual,” Hua said. “As time and age has come into play, I just live life to love and be who I am, without labels. I am comfortable regardless of what people think about me.”
While this is Trotti’s first relationship with a woman, Hua, 35, said she has always been out. Her father is Chinese and her mother is Vietnamese. They came to the United States from Vietnam on a sponsorship program, first living in Minnesota then eventually relocating to Texas for work. Hua said her parents weren’t around much because of traveling for work. “It was just my grandmother and [me]. It was rough,” she said. “We moved to Sugar Land. It was a developing area in the suburbs. I was a minority in every way. I didn’t fit in—it was more of a white community.”
The combination of not fitting in, resenting her parents for being away so much and dealing with her sexuality caused her to start acting out, Hua said. Her mother thought her sexual orientation was a phase and that she would grow out of it. Part of her rebellion included tattoos, which along with being gay, proved not to be a phase. Hua now has tattoos covering her arms, back, thigh and stomach. She started getting ink at age 13. “I snuck out of the house. Friends drove me down on Westheimer [to a place] called Black Dragon. I got my first tattoo off the wall. It was a scorpion, because I’m a Scorpio. As I got older, I had it covered, because people would say, ‘that’s a cool lobster.’” What started out as teenage rebellion has become an important method of self-expression for her. “As I have gotten older, it has evolved into my own personal style, which tells a story of who I am,” she said.
Although Hua said she didn’t really bond with her parents until she hit her 30s, she was clearly influenced by their sense of community. The family is Buddhist Confucian and she explained that when her parents retired, they gave back to their religious community by building a Buddhist temple. The stunning Teo-Chew Temple, co-founded by Hua’s grandparents and their friends, is located near Beltway 8.
Her parents’ generous spirit includes their embrace of Trotti, she said. Even though her grandmother—being from a different generation and culture—doesn’t seem to quite understand, Hua said she is “awesome” and has never been unkind to her or her friends. “There’s nothing I can do to shock my family,” she joked. “I don’t date [within my] race. I’m gay.” Despite her independent nature, one compromise Hua makes is to cover her tattoos when the family is out together. She said they aren’t bothered by the art and no one has ever asked her to do it, but out of respect for her parents and grandmother, she makes the gesture.
Perhaps it was time spent away from home at boarding schools at a tender age or her parents’ travels, but whatever the cause, at the top of Hua’s list of leisure activities is travel. It’s a passion shared by Trotti, and the two jump at every opportunity to escape to exotic locales, such as Costa Rica. Also worked into the mix are shopping (when they have the cash), yoga, martial arts— which Hua has studied since she was 18—and motorcycles. Hua owns a Ducati Monster and a Vespa (the latter Trotti jokingly claimed in the event of a breakup).
It’s not surprising however, given that the couple bonded over food, cooking ranks up there with travel. “We love food,” Trotti said. “We do our own fusion.”
“She has taught me a lot about cooking,” Hua added. Her love of food and cooking serve as a metaphor when it comes to her life and work. “Whatever you want, there is a way to achieve it,” Hua said. “Success is like a recipe. There is a recipe for anything. It has to be in order. If you put the egg before the flour, it won’t work right.”
Hua also attributes part of her success to staying positive. “I say, don’t listen to your mind. I think as human beings, we have a habitual way of thinking. Don’t be negative. Just live.”